Veerdhaval has a dream

STAN RAYAN

Veerdhaval Khade... aiming to break Sebastian Xavier's 50m freestyle record.-MAHESH HARILAL

TALK about Sebastian Xavier's national record and one often draws a strange response from coaches. A sort of do-you-believe-that look.

Some, like Bangalore's Nihar Ameen, a respected coach in the national circuit, evade the issue with a slippery "no comments on that."

It's been seven years since Sebastian swam the 50m free in a fiery 22.89 sec. on a cold September day at the Bangalore National. It made the Railway ace the country's fastest swimmer ever. No one has come anywhere close.

The Bangalore meet was also the Asian Games trials for the Indian team and Sebastian's feat, which came after two foul starts, still has the Swimming Federation of India officials and coaches coughing oddly when one mentions it. Come to think of it, that timing would have even fetched Sebastian a medal at the last Asian Games in Busan, something which an Indian has not done in the last four editions of the continental Games, and made him a finalist at last month's World Cup Series Meet in Korea.

"You need something special, someone extraordinary to clock such a timing. I had a lightning start and was very, very fast. I still remember that race very clearly," said Sebastian, now a Sports Officer with Southern Railway in Chennai, during the recent Senior National in Thrissur.

Indian swimming may have finally spotted that someone special at the Thrissur National. He's Veerdhaval Khade and has been making a big splash these days. A couple of months ago, he was down in the dumps after a bathroom sink fell on his feet and hecneeded nearly two dozen stitches. And when the National was postponed, from October to December, it proved to be big a blessing for the Maharashtra youngster. Veerdhaval, who was making his Senior National debut in Thrissur, collected two freestyle golds (100m and 200) and three silvers and improved his personal best timings by a big margin in all the five events.

"I bettered my best by nearly one second in the 50 free and by two in the 100," he said, quite thrilled about his work. Indian swimming is thrilled too. "He is the most exciting prospect in the country," said Nihar Ameen, his coach at the Bangalore's K. C. Reddy Swim Centre. "He's something exceptional," said the SFI secretary Virendra Nanavati after watching the Maharashtra youngster break the 200m free National Championship record, bettering his personal best by nearly three seconds. Veerdhaval is 6-foot-2 and despite being just 15, he is one of the tallest swimmers in the national circuit. His dad was a good basketball player and, considering his height, Veerdhaval would have made a good one too. "But my dad wanted me to concentrate on an individual event," said the ninth standard student who began swimming when he was five.

The move to shift from his native Kolhapur to Bangalore, virtually the sport's capital in the country, four months ago, has worked wonders.

He was the fastest under-14 Asian at the recent continental age-group championship in Bangkok where he picked two golds, in the 50m and 100 free. "He's quite raw, so he offers a lot of scope. He's picked up a few flaws early so we're undoing it now. He has got great endurance too... but we'll slowly make him concentrate on the sprints where he offers a lot of scope," said Nihar, who also coaches Shikha Tandon, Indian swimming's golden girl . "I'm looking at doing the 50 free in 23 seconds in 2006," said Veerdhaval, who has a personal best of 24.78 secs in the sprint. "And after working on my technique and power, my plan is to break Sebastian Xavier's record in one and half to two years."

"That will be my motivation for the next two years."