No stopping the Karnataka juggernaut

Maana Patel of Gujarat dominated the backstroke events.-Pics: S.MAHINSHA

An upset looked on the cards when Maharashtra led till the penultimate day, but Karnataka enjoyed a profitable final day to retain the title, Maharashtra finishing a close second. By M. R. Praveen Chandran.

Sport tends to surprise with twists and turns. But in national swimming things are constant. There is no end to Karnataka’s domination. The state ruled supreme, for the 23rd straight year, at the 67th edition of the championship held in Thiruvananthapuram.

An upset looked on the cards, when Maharashtra led till the penultimate day, but Karnataka enjoyed a profitable final day to retain the title, Maharashtra finishing a close second.

The national championship was supposedly the trial for selecting the core team for the Commonwealth and the Asian Games, but surprisingly it was given the cold shoulder by some prominent swimmers and also by the selectors. Indian swimming legends Khazhan Singh and Bula Chaudhary, who were part of the selection committee, never made it to Thiruvananthapuram.

The country’s biggest swimming star, Virdhawhal Khade, was also conspicuous by his absence. The 24-year-old, Khade, who is undergoing mandatory training, after joining Maharashtra Government service as assistant collector, gave preference to his administrative career over swimming. His coach, Nihar Ameen, however, said, his ward will be back in the pool soon and it will not be a big deal for the ace swimmer to make the cut for both the Commonwealth and the Asian championship.

The change in schedule — from the first week of October to the end of November — also forced some swimmers to give the event a miss because of studies and examinations, national record holders Surabhi Tipre and M. B. Balakrishnan being the best examples.

Sandeep Sejwal of RSPB was the best male swimmer of the meet.-

Richa Mishra, the most successful woman swimmer in the recent times, was facing suspension for doping. With these big names missing, the meet lost its sheen even before it started. The murky weather and rain were the other deterrents and only 10 meet records were created in five days of competition.

It was the 13-year-old sensation Maana Patel, who saved the meet from plummeting to further despair. The Gujarat girl was the cynosure of all eyes and came with a huge reputation on her fragile shoulders. Maana didn’t disappoint, and came up with performances that clearly announced her arrival as the country’s brightest hope in swimming.

She was a revelation in the backstroke events, setting three meet records and a national record in the 200m backstroke. No other swimmer, apart from Virdhawal Khade, in recent times, has created such a wave in the swimming pool. The ninth-standard student was clearly a class apart from her rivals.

The immensely talented Maana is still an uncut diamond. Though having only a normal physique, like any teenager of her age, it is her sheer talent that powers her ahead of older and stronger opponents. According to her coach and mentor Kamlesh Nanavati, who is also the secretary of the Swimming Federation of India, Maana needs to improve her start and turn. “Her strokes are good and powerful. But she has to work on two things which are highly technical. She will save a lot of time if she improves her start and turn. But as Secretary of SFI, my hands are full and I find it difficult to spend quality time with her and she shouldn’t suffer for that. I have endorsed expert coaching for her and we will be taking a call on this, after consulting her father Rajeev Patel soon,” Kamlesh told Sportstar.

For Maana, who has never left the precincts of her home, it will be a tough call. But the young girl is ready to make the sacrifices to realise the ultimate aim of winning a medal at the Olympics.

There was fulsome praise for Maana from all quarters. Nihar Ameen was impressed and so too was S. Pradeep Kumar, the national coach and SFI selector. But Pradeep had a word of caution as well, “There is no doubt that Maana is a special talent. But she needs proper guidance and has to be carefully nurtured. I have seen some equally talented swimmers, but they lost their way after promising starts.”

Other teenagers also showed their mettle in the pool. Shivani Kirtane, the 15-year-old class X student from Haryana, showed glimpses of her potential, by winning the gold in the 200m freestyle. Shivani, who hails from Gurgaon, shifted her base to Bangalore, to train under Nihar Ameen at the Dolphin Swimming Club. The youngster has attained the ‘B’ standard qualifying mark for the Commonwealth Youth Games and holds promise. Pooja Alva (100m, 200m butterfly) and Monique Gandhi (400m, 800m and 1500m) were the other youngsters who impressed.

However, there was an element of predictability in the men’s events, especially with the big three — Sandeep Sejwal, Rohit Havaldar and Aaron D’Souza — competing. The trio lived up to their pre-event billing and set records in their pet events.

Sandeep came up with a meet record in the 200m breaststroke and was adjudged as the best swimmer of the event. Aaron, who took a year away from swimming to concentrate on his studies, showed that he still has not lost any of his hunger. He set a new mark in the 200m butterfly, clocking 2:00.90s, to break Rehan Poncha’s mark of 2:01.28, set in 2009. “I was quite disappointed after losing the opportunity to take part in the London Olympics even after attaining the qualifying mark. I took a break from swimming. Now I am back to my best and looking forward to the Commonwealth and Asian Games,” he said.

Rohit Havaldar set the best Indian performance in the 200m backstroke, sinking another record held by Rehan Poncha. Rohit, in his favourite event, was timed at 2:06.23s, far better than Rehan’s mark of 2:07.52, set in 2009.

Young Sajan Prakash of Railways proved to be the surprise package. The youngster, who tried his hands in the 400m freestyle for the first time, came up with a record breaking performance (3:58.51). He beat favourite Saurabh Sangvekar, in what was easily the most exciting event of the meet.

The 20-year-old Sajan won the 100m butterfly and also beat Saurabh in the 800m freestyle. Saurabh, who was returning to competition after a shoulder injury, proved that he is still a force, winning the 1500m freestyle event.

HIGHLIGHTS

Records: Men: 400m freestyle: Sajan Prakash (RSPB) (3:58.51 – MR): 200m backstroke: Rohit Havaldar (Mah) (2:06.23 – MR); 200m breaststroke: Sandeep Sejwal (RSPB) (2:15.22 – MR); 200m butterfly: Aaron D’Souza (RSPB) (2:00.90 –MR); 4x100m medley relay: RSPB (3:53.87 – MR).

Women: 50m backstroke: Maana Patel (Guj) (0:31.15 – MR); 100m backstroke: Maana Patel (Guj) (1:06.58 – MR); 200m backstroke: Maana Patel (Guj) (2:22.34 – MR); 4x100m freestyle relay: Maharasthra (4:06.18 – MR); 4X100m medley relay: Maharashtra (4:34.50 – MR).

Overall placings:

1. Karnataka (217 points), 2. Maharashtra (200 points), 3. RSPB (187 points).

Diving: Men: SSCB (31 points), Women: RSPB (27 points): Best swimmer: Men: Sandeep Sejwal (RSBP). Women: Maana Patel (Gujarat)

Waterpolo (final): Men: Services beat Railways 14-8. Women: Kerala beat Police 6-2.