Shikha Tandon: India has a tremendous pool of talent

There have been a mere handful of Indian women swimmers who have competed in the Olympics. With 146 national and 36 international medals, Shikha Tandon has been very special.

Shikha Tandon... from being an Olympic swimmer to working with United States Anti-Doping Agency's science team.   -  K. Murali Kumar

There have been a mere handful of Indian women swimmers who have competed in the Olympics. With 146 national and 36 international medals, Shikha Tandon has been very special.

An advocate of clean sports and fair play, Shikha has been working with the United Staes Anti-Doping Agency science team since 2012, where she is involved in "providing scientific support to various departments of USADA which aid in daily operation, development, and projects critical to the company’s scientific initiatives".

She studied B.Sc (biotechnology, genetics,biochemistry) and M.Sc (biotechnology) in India, before moving to the U. S. in 2009, where she pursued another Masters degree in Biology.

She had competed in the Athens Olympics in 2004, but missed qualification for Beijing 2008 by 0.05 second.

In an interaction with the Sportstar, Shikha answered a variety of questions. However, bounded by the confidentiality clause at USADA, Shikha clarified that she would not be able to offer any personal opinion on anti-doping issues.

Question: ​From being a competitive swimmer to working with United States Anti-Doping Agency, how has been the transition? How much do you like the job?

Answer: I’ve always been an advocate for clean sports and fair play. Throughout my career I’ve been drug tested a lot, so I understand the importance. The field of anti-doping science was something I wanted to work on and make contribution. My education in the biological sciences and my experience in sport allowed for a smooth transition in to anti-doping science. I’ve been working at USADA as the Science Program Lead since 2012 and have not only learnt a lot, but have also been able to contribute positively towards the field. Some athletes give back to the sport by becoming coaches or sports managers or motivational speakers. My way of giving back is through anti-doping science, in the hope that every athlete at the start line has a fair chance at the podium.

Q: From competing in the Athens Olympics in 2004, and following it till now, are you surprised by the dramatic change of fortunes in terms of Olympic medals for India?

A: Sport in India is slowly but surely growing. Support systems for athletes and coaches that were not available until a decade ago are flourishing now. All these are positive signs for Indian sport. The steadily increasing number of medals at the Olympics is a testament to that. India has a tremendous pool of talent and hopefully more medals at global platforms such as the Olympics, motivates and encourages more youngsters to pursue sports.

Q: Indian women have done very well in the Olympics. Karnam Malleswari, Saina Nehwal and Mary Kom have won medals. Do you see the trend growing further in Rio this time?

A: Many Indian women are at the top of their game worldwide. It really does take one top performer to change the image of a sport. It’s very heartening to watch these women perform and inspire young girls to take up the sport. My hope is that this trend continues in Rio, and also beyond. It’ll be exciting to see new sports on the podium for India in Rio.

Q: Sania Mirza is World No.1 in women’s doubles for more than a year. Saina Nehwal was World No.1 in badminton. Boxer Mary Kom won five World Championship gold and an Olympic medal. Deepika Kumari is a world class archer. Dipa Karmakar is the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics in gymnastics. Does it at any time make you feel that you could have pursued some other sport?

A: To be honest, swimming was not my first choice of sport. As a kid, I was interested in athletics. When I was eight-year-old, I was introduced to swimming because my younger brother had Asthma and was advised to take up swimming. Going from the little girl that was scared of water to having represented India at the Olympics, it’s been a great journey. Sometimes you never know where opportunities are hiding and I’m glad I took to swimming because looking back, I would not trade my experiences for anything else.

Q: What do you think Indian swimming needs to touch world standards? Of course, there have been concerted efforts from swimmers and coaches.

A: The current Indian team has some very talented athletes. Some of the junior swimmers have shown a lot of promise and are already winning medals at the Asian age group level. At the previous two editions of the Asian Games, Indian swimmers have won medals. My coach, Nihar Ameen, was recently presented the Dronacharya award, which shows that efforts of the swimming coaches are also being recognised. Unlike a decade ago, global brands have also begun sponsoring some of the Indian swimmers. All these are baby steps in the right direction. Hopefully, this support continues, not only from sports brands, but from corporate organisations for years to come so that the team can capitalise on these opportunities going in to the future.

Q: We have been able to improve in a precision sport like shooting. Anju Bobby George won a World Championship medal in long jump in athletics which is a rarity for India. Boxing and wrestling have also improved. In doubles tennis, we are on top of the world. Archery is world class and awaiting for an Olympic medal. Do you see any addition to this trend?

A: Apart from the sports mentioned, I would add badminton, cue sports, hockey, gymnastics, and table tennis to the list. I’d also like to see swimming on that list. The various Indian sports leagues are doing a great job of increasing popularity of their sport and garnering larger audience, viewership through the year. I do believe that it can take just one top performance to increase the popularity of a sport, and also motivate and encourage youngsters to pursue that sport.

Q: You may have followed the Indian tennis choice for Olympics. How do you react to Leander Paes winning Grand Slam mixed doubles so consistently, and getting ready for his seventh Olympics at 43?

A: What Leander has achieved is unprecedented. His multiple Grand Slam titles, and now getting ready to compete in his seventh consecutive Olympics, speaks for itself. His performances over the past couple of decades have inspired so many athletes, and not just those within the tennis community. I’m looking forward to watching the tennis matches at Rio.

Q: You tried to qualify for Beijing Olympics, and came very close. What is it that attracts the sportspersons to the Olympics?

A: After competing at the Athens Olympics in 2004, I tried to qualify again for Beijing in 2008. Unfortunately, I missed the qualifying time by 0.05 of a second in the 50m freestyle. I swallowed water at the 35-metre mark of the race and I know that’s what cost me the qualifying time. It was upsetting because it was a case of being so close and yet so far! As an athlete, you train for years to represent your country at the Olympics, and when you are fortunate enough to get the chance, it’s an experience you’ll cherish forever.

Q: There are two sports books released recently, one by Sania Mirza and another featuring 50 Olympians. Will you read them?

A: Both books will be a good read. It’ll be very interesting to hear the stories of past Olympians, especially since the book will date back to 1948. As a fellow athlete, it will be exciting to read first-hand accounts of each athlete as they relive their sports journeys and experiences.

Q: How do you look back at your career?

A: My parents, Rahul and Bindu Tandon, have been my cheerleaders since the beginning! They have supported and encouraged me at every step of my journey as a swimmer and beyond. Whatever I have achieved thus far, has been because of my support system — my family, friends, and coaches. My mom would drive me to swimming practice and school every day and would accompany me for all my swim meets. My grandparents have also participated in my journey, including flying all the way to Athens to wave the Indian flag while I competed. My brother, Shobhit, is the reason I started swimming, and he has been my biggest fan through and through. Shankar and I live in San Francisco and we met and got married after I had given up competitive swimming. He has never seen me compete and not a single day goes by without him urging me get back in to the pool!

Q: Do you play any other sport?

A: Ever since I stopped competitive swimming, I’ve kept myself active by running, hiking, and also playing a couple of seasons of kickball.