It rained records

The best of the lot... Rehan Poncha and Richa Mishra, who stole the show at the Nationals.-Pics: K. MURALI KUMAR

From a card of 40 events, 19 records — eight National and 11 meet marks — were thrown overboard. The standard of swimming in the country has definitely improved, writes Kalyan Ashok.

The best of the lot...

It might not be the best of times to stage any competition in Goa during the monsoon, but it rained records at the LIC 61st National Aquatics Championship in Panaji (September 19-23). The meet was a clear index of the rising swimming standards in the country.

Without doubt, the quality of swimming has undergone a dramatic change in the past season with the Indian swimmers making a huge impact at the recent Asian Age Group Championship in Jakarta and the South Asian Championship in Islamabad.

At the Nationals, the swimmers kept up that momentum. From a 40-event card, the meet spawned 19 records which included eight National and 11 meet marks.

The Panaji Nationals was particularly memorable for Rehan Poncha, who won his maiden best swimmer title here with four National records and a meet mark. “Winning here meant a lot to me than anything else though I had won back-to-back crowns at the last two National Games,” Rehan said after the meet.

What was heartening about Rehan’s performance was that he strove for National records in each of the five events he took part in. And barring the 200m butterfly, in which he won a silver medal, Rehan set National records in all. His only regret was that he did not quite make the qualifying mark for the 2008 Olympics. He sure has quite some distance to cover and needs to go under 4:28 in the 400m individual medley and 3:59 in the 400m freestyle — his two pet events.

“It was a superb meet, and it would have been all the more great had I made the cut for the Olympics. But there is still time and I have to work out a proper schedule and perfect my turns. I hope to be there in Beijing,” said Rehan, who, for most part, raced against himself in all his events, barring the 200m butterfly where Arjun Muralidharan called the shots.

Impressive show… Arjun Muralidharan and Sandeep Sejwal (below) accounted for three records each.-

Impressive show…

Like Rehan, Sandeep Sejwal also hopes to secure a berth for the Beijing Olympics. The laconic Delhiite has been the swimmer of the season for India. But he has dropped time by four seconds and seven seconds in the 100m and 200m breaststroke events respectively in the past few months.

In the 100m breaststroke, Sejwal clocked 1:04.36 — a National record — but this was a shade outside the Olympics qualifying mark of 1:03.72. Perhaps he could have achieved it had he finished powerfully in the final 50 metres, but there was nobody to push him.

Sejwal clocked 2:19.51 in the 200m breaststroke for another National record and then timed 29.40 seconds in the 50m breaststroke heats to set a new meet record. However, in the final, he clocked only 29.45 but that was enough to secure the gold medal.

“He was just superb and we are not going to rest till we get him up there for the Olympics,” said Sejwal’s coach, Nihar Ameen.

It is a tough act for Sandeep to be shuttling between Delhi, where he is studying in St. Stephen’s College, and Bangalore, where he is training under Nihar.

Arjun Muralidharan, the butterfly ace, had a reasonably good outing. He not only won all the three butterfly events he participated in — 50m,100m and 200m — but also set new meet records in each of them.

However, he failed to replicate his last year’s performance when he won five gold medals, all with meet records, and claimed the best swimmer title. In the 200m backstroke, Arjun was pushed to the second spot by Rehan, while in the 100m backstroke, he suffered a stunning reverse, with dark horse M. Balakrishnan winning in a meet record time of 1:00.06.

In the absence of Mandar Divase of Police, who has all but called it a day, it was the Karnataka lad, Rohit Hawaldar, who ruled the distance events, winning both the 800m and 1500m freestyle races. In the 800m freestyle, Hawaldar erased the meet record.

The short sprints — 50m freestyle and 100m freestyle — went without records. Virdhwal Khade, a champion swimmer in the short sprints, opted out of the meet thanks to his board examinations. However, Aaron D’Souza, the 15-year-old Banglorean who had been swimming non-stop for eight weeks, thanks to his participation in the Asian Age Group meet, the South Asian meet and the Nationals, made up for Khade’s absence. He finished with a clutch of medals, including a gold in the 200m freestyle, silver in the 800m and 1500m freestyle and a bronze in the 200m butterfly. With age and talent on his side, the youngster is bound to go far.

The women’s section witnessed just two National records — in the 1500m freestyle and 50m butterfly — and two meet records — in the 800m freestyle and 400m individual medley. Richa Mishra, who retained the best swimmer title, accounted for three of those marks. In the 1500m freestyle, she timed 18:00.64 to improve upon her own National record of 18:14.97 set at the National Games earlier this year.

In the 800m freestyle, Richa broke the long standing meet record of Anita Sood (9:32.04, set in 1984) with a timing of 9:25.57. She also set a new meet record in the 400m individual medley by clocking 5:04.84. Besides, Richa also won gold medals in the 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley.

Shikha Tandon of Karnataka also scored five out of five, winning gold medals in the 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle, 50m backstroke and 50m butterfly. She started off with a National record in the 50m butterfly (29.41), but was disappointed that she couldn’t achieve the Olympic qualifying time of 26.32 in the 50m freestyle, where she finished with 26.92. But it was a good comeback by Shikha who was out of action for a while last season following a shoulder surgery.

Fariha Zaman of Assam, who trains in Bangalore, also impressed with gold in the 100m and 200m backstroke. Karnataka retained the overall title with 414 points (24 golds, 22 silvers and 13 bronzes).

In waterpolo, Railways (men) and Police (women) emerged the champions. Railways came to the fore in diving too.

Hruthika Shiram emerged the outstanding diver of the meet. The 17-year-old from Solapur made a clean sweep in the women’s section, winning the one-metre, three-metre and high board events.

In the men’s section, Manish Kumar of SSCB (three-metre springboard), Yogesh Watve of SSCNB (one-metre springboard) and Tushar Giaye (high board) shared the spoils.

With the new format (six dives for men and five for women) in force, the competition was quite fierce. There were lapses too, putting pressure on both the judges and the divers. On the first day, Services’ diver, Karthik Shaw, had a narrow escape when he fell flat on the board and landed on his chest in the pool. It took some time for the organisers to rush him to hospital as no medical help was found at the venue. Given the inherent risks, the presence of qualified medical staff should be made mandatory during the diving contests.