Young and ambitious

A huge haul... Rehan Poncha with his collection of medals.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Winning is what matters most to Rehan Poncha. "I thrive on adversity, the odds motivate me and I always like to beat them," says India's ace swimmer in a chat with Kalyan Ashok.

There is a cosy corner in Rehan Poncha's modest flat in downtown Basavanagudi in Bangalore where he has stacked up all his medals — a mind-boggling 540 in all. His two most proud possessions, the `Best Athlete' trophies he won at the Guwahati National Games recently and the Hyderabad National Games in 2002, are placed over the mantlepiece.

Rehan, 20, also has several certificates and scrolls of honour, which are a testimony to his growing prowess. His rise has been meteoric in the past five years, Rehan having participated in the world short course swimming championship, the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the SA Games.

Rehan currently holds India's best timings in 400m freestyle (4:05.94s), 400m individual medley (4:37.04s) and 200m individual medley (2:10.88s). Not bad for someone who took up swimming as a therapy for bronchitis at a young age. "Once he learnt swimming at the Willingdon Club in Mumbai, he wanted to compete and winning mattered to him the most," recalls his father Jehangir Poncha.

The Ponchas — Jehangir and Shirin — have played a big part in their son's rise to fame. In fact, Jehangir left a lucrative diamond business in Mumbai to set up base in Bangalore just to ensure that Rehan gets the best training in swimming.

The National Games in Guwahati was a watershed in Rehan's career. It reinforced his self-belief and brought out his typical never-say-die spirit. He was thoroughly under-prepared for the meet because of a foot injury. He had wanted to cancel his trip to Guwahati until the ULFA lifted their ban and he boarded the fight at the last minute. "I just went with the feeling, `let us see what happens.'"

And what happened was swimming history at the end of the Games. Rehan flew home with 15 medals — nine golds, three silvers and three bronzes, a medal in each event he participated in. In addition he also bagged the `Best Athlete (male)' trophy.

Clad in a casual T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, Rehan spoke to Sportstar about his career, his early struggles and heady successes.

Excerpts of the interview:

Question: It has been a great National Games for you. And come to think of it, you almost pulled out of it. Why such an indecision before the meet?

Answer: Yes, it was a very memorable National Games and I would admit that I didn't expect to win the `Best Athlete' award. It was hardly on my mind. It was perhaps the worst preparation I had for the meet having suffered a soft tissue injury on the right instep of my foot. I hardly swam before the meet. Normally, I go to a meet fully fit and fully prepared. I went to Guwahati knowing that I hadn't done my homework. I said to myself, "I am swimming in 15 events, and whatever comes I will accept it." Even then I had my doubts about going with the ULFA threat around. I was in two minds. But I am now glad that I went.

Given the fact that you had not prepared well, to what would you attribute your success in the meet?

I would credit my success to my training for the Asian Games in Doha. It was one of the most strenuous training sessions that I had, which included a heavy workout in the gym. I think that came to my rescue in Guwahati, if not at the Asian Games.

Considering the long, intensive camps that all the Indian swimmers had in Bangalore, what went wrong in Doha?

I went into the Asian Games fully prepared to do my best, but I never got around to doing it. I think I tried to over-reach, and over did things. It is not that I was overawed by the opposition. I have raced against faster swimmers, so I wasn't feeling wary of the Chinese or the Japanese swimmers. I just didn't feel good on any of the racing days. I would say, it was one bad patch.

Which would you rate as your most satisfying event in Guwahati?

I think it was the 1500m freestyle, 50m backstroke and 100m backstroke. I achieved my personal best timings in these races, and mind you, I have not done these races for a pretty long time. The disappointing one was the 400m freestyle, where I normally excel. I couldn't up the speed because of my injury.

Which meet would you rate as your best?

The SA Games in Colombo last year. I set South Asian records in the 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley and 400m freestyle. Everything went right for me there.

You are the best 400m individual medley swimmer in the country, and does that make you the most versatile swimmer as well?

Being pretty good in the individual medley has always been a huge advantage for me while doing multi events. I have done well in all, freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, but I guess I need to improve in the breaststroke segment. My backstroke is decent, but with the effort that I am putting into it, it is affecting my performance in the next segment, which is breaststroke.

Any immediate goals on improving the 400m individual medley record?

I may have India's best timing in the event, but the 400m individual medley is one race where I can improve a lot. At the age of 15, I was doing 4:45, then I stopped improving for three years. The next couple of years, I actually dropped my time before I came back at the SA Games with a 4:37. I want to hit sub-4:30 before the season ends as the qualifying time for the next Olympics is 4:27. Actually, during the Asian Games, I had set my sights on 4:32, but unfortunately it didn't happen.

Do you believe you can become a world-class swimmer in 400m individual medley?

If I do between 4:30 and 4:25, I think that I can get there. The target, as I told you, is to achieve the Olympics qualifying mark of 4:27, and from there if I am able to cut a few seconds more, I can consider myself among the world's top 20 swimmers in the 400m individual medley.

How much did your stint in Australia, although a short one, help you?

I was able to improve by a few seconds in a couple of events, but then I now believe training for a short period is of no big use. I would rather prefer a longer stint if I get the opportunity.

You have trained under three top-notch Indian coaches — the late Sandeep Digvijkar of Mumbai, Nihar Ameen of K. C. Reddy Swim Centre, Bangalore, and now S. Pradeep Kumar of BAC (Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre). Which has been the best phase?

All were equally good. I was extremely hard working under Sandeep and Nihar. But what happened during the later part of my stint at KCR was that there was no one to push me in the pool. The motivation dropped a bit. But at BAC, there were swimmers who were really racing against me fast and it helped me a lot in training.

Any long-term goals?

I don't set myself such goals, but I want to keep improving from meet to meet. Definitely, I would take a shot at the gold in the 2012 Asian Games. I will be 25 then. Yes, that could be my long-term goal.

A proud moment...Rehan Poncha displays the medals he won at the National Games in Guwahati.-AP

What sets you apart from the other swimmers?

Most swimmers do well when the going is good, but in my case, I thrive on adversity, like it happened during the recent National Games. With a foot injury and lack of training, the odds really charged me up. I could even say, the odds motivate me and I always like to beat them.

Another aspect is that I feel that I can learn from anyone, be it a world-class swimmer or just a novice. There's always something that others might offer which would help improve my own level. I feel I am always learning something new from others. The two National Games Best Athlete trophies look good, but then I always think where am I at the world level? There is always the desire to get there.

Who is your biggest idol in the sport?

In swimming, Alexander Popov for his combative spirit, and in other sports, I like Roger Federer for his class and supreme confidence. At a very personal level, I admire Shyam Kothari (an ace biker), who is my cousin's husband.

What do you think about the current state of Indian aquatics?

It has never been this good. There are so many guys doing well in different events. There is a lot more talent and the younger lot is really giving others a run for their money. Mind you, if I don't do it (win a gold) in 2012, somebody is going to do it in 2016 and the only way is to go forward.