The women’s 400m Individual medley event of the 36th National Games was a pointer to the future of Indian swimming. A new star was born as the 14-year-old Hashika Ramachandra of Karnataka blitzed the field, which included 39-year-old veteran Richa Mishra.
The baton was quietly passed from Richa, who had ruled the pool for two-and-a-half decades, to Hashika who was later chosen as the best women athlete of the National Games.
Hashika’s accession as the new star was the highpoint of the National Games swimming at Sardar Patel Aquatic Complex where everything else followed the familiar script. The games also saw the start of what will be an intense rivalry between Hashika and Astha Choudhury in the coming years. The 18-year-old Astha, a trainee of SAI-Glenmark Academy in Delhi, was more experienced and had come to the National Games after a good show at the National Swimming Championships in Guwahati.
However, Astha met her match at the hands of Hashika who beat her in the 200m butterfly. Hashika pipped the favourite Astha at the finish to set a new games record. Hashika finished with six gold medals and said her hard work paid off. She is aware of the huge expectations on her shoulders and said it will be an added pressure in the coming years.
Maana Patel, Chahat Arora, and Bhavya Sachdeva came up with record-breaking performances, but none of them were to attain the qualifying mark for the Asian Games of which the National Games was an FINA-recognised qualifying event.
Richa Mishra after finishing second behind Hashika in the 400m IM taunted the young brigade saying she was 35 when she set the national record in the event in 2018 and could have beaten most of them had she been training regularly. It is a challenge for the young lot, including Hashika to erase old standing records and set new benchmarks.
The 29-year-old Sajan Prakash for the second consecutive year was chosen as the best male athlete of the National Games. Sajan won eight medals that included five gold medals, and though not at his best, he was more than a handful for his young competitors.
The men’s competitions were predictable with Srihari Nataraj, Advait Page and Sajan looking a class apart in their pet events. Despite the predictable nature of contests, the performances of Aneesh Gowda, Aryan Nehra, Likith and Utkarsh Santosh Patil, raised hopes for a bright future.
The Florida-based Advait missed Kushagra Rawat, who was nursing a sore shoulder in the 1500m freestyle. Advait said Kushagra would have pushed him to achieve better timings in these games.
Advait has often lamented that he lacked competition in India and said the difference between India and USA was the depth of talent available in each event. He said the competition was so intense in the US that even an Olympic gold medallist wasn’t guaranteed a place in the team, and he had to come up with his best performance every time he competed. Advait doesn't foresee such tight competition in India in near future.
Former National coach Pradeep Kumar however, says the standard has been increasing over the years, and the next crop of swimmers will be ready to take over the mantle and push the standards even higher. The lack of competition has forced many frontline swimmers to be based in foreign countries. The top priority of the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) should be to increase the talent pool and provide more international exposure to the swimmers. More professional academies along the lines of SAI-Glenmark throughout the country will do a world of good to Indian swimming as well.