The duo share a common passion

KHALYAN N. ASHOK

Shikha Tandon, the best swimmer among women, in a happy frame of mind.-PICS: K. GOPINATHAN

SHIKHA TANDON and Akbar Ali Mir, who were adjudged as `Best Swimmers' of the 57th senior National aquatic championship, are pictures in contrast. Shikha, at 18, is essentially an uptown girl with an affluent background and being a swimmer is purely by choice. For the 20-year-old Akbar Ali Mir, swimming is more than a choice, it is a way of life and it is bread and butter to him as he grew up in a middle class family in a Kolkata suburb, with stars in his eyes. Yet the two share a common passion and a goal to be the best in their business.

Shikha's climb has been steady under the able guidance of Nihar Ameen, who has been her mentor from childhood. What Nihar saw in Shikha, was her determination to sweat it out for the goals that he had set for her. "She is a glutton for load and in her group, we don't have many girls at our pool (K. C. Reddy Centre in Bangalore), who can pace her. She often had to train with the boys or simply does it on her own,'' says Nihar.

Shikha, by the time, she was 14, made her mark on the National scene. Though she has been a regular member of the Indian squad in the Asian Age Group championships, and the 1998 Asian Games and the following one, in 2002. She became the lone Indian swimmer to figure in 100m freestyle `A' final of the 2002 Asiad. That gave her lot of confidence and instilled a belief that she can hold her own at international meets. Her first taste of World championship was in 2001 and, "being the first World championship, I was nervous'', admits Shikha. She became a matured swimmer in the next one at Barcelona, where she clocked the best 100 for women in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, with 58.32 seconds which saw her make the Olympic qualifying cut. She aims to qualify in 50m and 100m backstroke events as well.

She aims to do that in the Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad and later she will move on to Brisbane for further training. "I am happy with my training with Nihar Ameen and I don't say that foreign training is a must, but then in Brisbane, I will be swimming with girls, who are either faster than me or who match me. That will be a great motivation to improve my time,'' says Shikha.

On her strengths, she feels that "her explosive start and unwavering focus on her goals, keep her going". A medal at the Asian Games and another by the 2008 Olympics, is the long burning ambition of the 18-year old Bangalorean. "From 27.04 at the Asian age Group in August to 26.61 seconds at Kolkata is a huge improvement and I am sure that she can bring it down further and also make an `A' final," says Nihar Ameen.

Akbar Ali Mir proudly displays his individual trophy.-

Akbar Ali Mir, as a young boy trudged to training to a distant pool. But the young boy's talent was quickly spotted and encouraged by coaches like Samir Saha. Representing Bengal and later Railways, Akbar Ali Mir has been a force to reckon with in the butterfly and the individual medley. "I am happy to win the individual title here, but I wish I had been lot more consistent and won golds in all the five events, but the first two days were not good enough,'' says the Railways ace who won the individual title here in 2000.

"I am grateful to my coach, Bidu Choudhry and SAI. I owe my training to them and also, I wish to thank the Railways Sports Board, with whom I am employed and our Sports Minister, who took personal interest in my career,'' says Akbar Ali Mir. He hopes to perform well at the Afro-Asian Games. "We have good competition in the men's section and each win, comes with lot of effort and I wish to keep doing my best,'' says Akbar.

There is a strange chemistry between diving and Bengali girls. A good deal of them aspire to be divers, possibly due to economic backwardness, which forces them to take up diving as it provides job opportunities in institutions like Railways. But they take the sport in earnest and make an all out effort to excel in it.

Mamoni Mondal, who was named the best woman diver, is one such example. Her parents originally from Bangladesh came to Kolkata for succour and young Mamoni, made a beeline for diving after being spotted by coach, Samir Saha. She has been making a steady progress and medals at Asian Age Group meets in Hong Kong and later in Macau, have given Mamoni, a reason to believe in herself. The 19-year-old Railway ace surely made her mark in the senior Nationals with a golden double (high board and one metre spring board).

Diving runs in G. B. Sharath's veins and the 18-year-old lad from Bangalore, who was adjudged as the best diver of the meet, hails from a family dedicated to diving. Father G. R. Balaraju, is one of the noted coaches in the country and sister, G. B. Shilpa, was a former international. "I dedicate my title to my family as they have been constantly supporting and motivating me'', says Sharath. In the last edition of the senior Nationals, he claimed a silver each in one metre spring board and three metre spring. In the Kolkata meet, he had an early disappointment. "I narrowly missed the bronze in the three metre, but I made amends for it in the one metre,'' says Sharath, who aims for an Asian medal , a few years from now.