Man of records

Rehan Poncha... fitter and faster.-K. GOPINATHAN

Rehan Poncha is focussed on the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games next year. “My aim is to win a medal at the Asian Games. I think I have a realistic chance of doing it,” he says in a chat with Kalyan Ashok.

Ever since Rehan Poncha returned home with the ‘Best Swimmer’ award from the National Aquatics Championship in Thiruvananthapuram — he had won it for the third time in succession — there has been a flood of messages clogging the inbox of his Facebook account. However, the 23-year-old swimmer from Bangalore cherishes the one that the racing whiz kid, Karun Chandok, had sent him.

“I am a big F1 fan and Karun has been doing commentary on F1, and he is such a good racer, it makes me proud when I get compliments from persons like him,” says Poncha, who is back to his grinding schedule in preparation for the Asian Indoor Games and the Asian Championship, his last two international meets for the season.

“I am fitter and faster now, and I am pleased with the way things are going and certainly look forward to putting up a much improved show in future,” says Poncha, whose goal is to win a medal in the 2010 Asian Games.

With three back-to-back National titles and two National Games ‘Best Athlete’ awards, one would think Poncha is through and done with domestic meets. But the swimmer feels that every meet, National or international, holds the same significance for to him. “I never consider that I am too big for the Nationals, and as long as I am around, I will continue to swim in all meets,” says the champion in an interview with Sportstar.

Excerpts:

Question: How do you assess your performance in the 2009 Nationals?

Answer: Before going to the Nationals, I had two hectic competitions, the World Championship in Rome and the Asian Age Group meet in Tokyo, where I had done well to post a few National best times. Repeating those times would be a big challenge, particularly after a 20-day training. So the obvious aim in the Nationals was to win gold medals in all my five personal events, which would translate into the ‘Best Swimmer’ award. In such meets the conditions are not always ideal, so one cannot possibly always look forward to doing his best time, so I did not put unnecessary pressure on myself. I took each race on a day-to-day basis. But I am happy that I still did my National best in the 200m individual medley, bettering my own record set in Rome. I narrowly missed doing my best in the 400m individual medley and 200m butterfly, but I set meet marks in all the five events that I won. Overall, I am pleased with the way I maintained my form throughout the meet.

How close are you to the targets that you set for yourself at the start of the season?

My target was to go under 2 minutes in the 200m butterfly, which was the best time that I had recorded in the AAG meet. But I hope to do that in the Asian Championship, the last meet of the season for me. My training is more focussed on the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games next year, and my aim is to win a medal at the Asian Games. I think I have a realistic chance of doing it.

Middle-distance races such as the 400m freestyle and 400m individual medley have also been your forte in the domestic circuit. How do you rate your chances in these events in international meets?

Between the two, I am doing the 400m freestyle better as I have cut down close to 4.30 seconds. But it is tough to catch up with the international times at this stage, given the short span of time that we have for the CWG or Asian Games. Moreover, my time in the breast-stroke segment of the individual medleys has remained static. Unless there is a drastic improvement there, I cannot say that I am competent enough to challenge the best in those events at international meets. I am doing pretty well in butterfly, so I would rather stick to that and make it work.

Have you been able to figure out the reason for your slackness in breast-stroke? Do you feel you need a stroke correction?

If I had been able to figure it out, I would not be talking about it! It could be the turn, or I might need to fine tune my stroke. I hope to sort that out with my coach, and I also plan to train abroad, so a fresh set of eyes can point out why it’s happening.

What’s the schedule ahead of you?

Well, very soon I have the Asian Indoor Games, which is basically short course sprint events, and that can help me work on my turns. Then I train for the Asian Championship in Busan in mid-November. In December, I plan to go to the U.S. and train in Los Angeles before returning to Bangalore in the summer of 2010.

Setting a record… Rehan Poncha in the 400m individual medley at the National Championship.-S. MAHINSHA

Is there a sense of deja vu now that you have three National Championship titles and two National Games ‘Best Athlete’ awards besides hundreds of medals in your cupboard? Do domestic meets still hold the same interest for you?

I consider all my races important. I know what I have put into winning the National title, and I consider the National meets no less than an international event. The quality of the National championship over the years has improved. I am up against faster and fitter swimmers, so I will never look down upon the National meets, though my focus is more on international competitions. I am 23, and I have got another four years of swimming left. And there is this hunger to do well in international meets and at least go out as an Asian Games medallist.

You now seem to sport a mean and lean look. Are you working hard physically off the pool?

I now have a new physical trainer, Mr. Richard from Chennai. With his help, I am working hard with swimming-specific workouts. So, there has been a lot of improvement. I am fitter, leaner and I have shed three kilos, and that’s why I am able to swim a little faster as well. But quite a few people think I am going down physically! (laughs).

Any areas in your swimming that need fine tuning?

I am aiming to improve my turns and my ability to swim under water. In the National Championship for instance, some of my rivals did a better underwater swim, though overall I was faster. This needs to be done effectively, I guess, and it should not be a problem for me to clock even 1 minute 58, or 57 seconds in the 200m butterfly if I can do that.

Swimming also needs a lot of mental strength — how good are you in that aspect?

I have always been a focussed swimmer ever since I came to Bangalore and started training under S. Pradeep Kumar at the Basvanagudi Aquatic Centre. Even after winning, there’s often a sense of dissatisfaction as I know that I might be the No. 1 in India, but only rank 30th or 35th in world. That’s going to stay till I make it to the semifinals of a World Championship or Olympics. But I am working on it and experimenting with my strokes; I am learning from my every swim and other swimmers as well…

Events like the Olympics or the World Championship, where you get to see the best at close quarters, must have been a huge learning experience for you…

The world champions swim with a lot more ease and their distance per stroke is very precise; they use the right amount of energy and effort. I cannot speak for the other Indian swimmers, but I realised how much I waste in terms of effort without effectively converting it into speed. Little things like a slight change in breathing techniques, turns or the right amount of power, they all can make a huge difference in times…that’s what I learnt at such meets. I incorporate them into my training sessions. Maybe, you can say that I am copying them, but there is no shame in copying good things, and it has been helping me to swim better in the past one year.

Your decision to train abroad means a decade long training partnership with Pradeep Kumar would come to an end. How do you feel about it?

To tell you frankly, I feel guilty about it. I would not have taken part in the Olympics or for that matter continued as a swimmer but for Pradeep Sir. But this is a necessity and he understands that. In summer, I will definitely get back to BAC and train with him. We were together wherever we had gone, and we will be together wherever we go…