Maana Patel, the only Indian woman swimmer to have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics last year, is honest — brutally so. In her words, she “choked” under pressure at the Tokyo Games. Admitting that to herself is among the steps she is taking to become the best she can be.
Three surgeries after the National Games have kept Maana, 22, away from the pool for a while. She is a few days away from completing her recovery process and is keen on entering the pool for off-season training. Her eyes are on qualifying for the Asian Games next year.
Maana had an impressive run at the Senior National Aquatic Championship 2022 in September, winning four gold medals and two bronze. She got little time to peak for the National Games that followed, but won three gold medals, two silver and one bronze. Maana broke her meet record in her favoured event, the 100m backstroke, at the National Games by almost a second, clocking 1:04.35, on the way to a gold medal.
In this interview with Sportstar, the Gujarat swimmer talks about the lessons from Tokyo Olympics, her equation with other swimmers, dealing with menstruation during competitions, and more.
Did the ‘only Indian women to qualify for Tokyo Olympics’ tag put you under pressure? What was your mental state then, and what were the lessons from the experience?
Yeah, there was a lot of pressure as it is every athlete’s dream to represent the country at the Olympics. The fact that I was competing in the Olympics put a lot of pressure on me, and people had expectations. However, I couldn’t handle the performance pressure well. That’s one reason why I didn’t do well. I swam well during training before my race and hoped to get a good time, but on the day of my race, everything went down. I went down the pressure spiral and choked. My lesson from that experience was that I learnt how to cope with stress, pressure. This experience has made me stronger and taught me to detach myself from the situation.
There are several younger swimmers such as Ridhima Veerendra Kumar, Hashika Ramachandra and seasoned professionals like Richa Mishra, you stand in the middle; what are your thoughts on competing with these two generations?
The younger generation is coming up, and I’m happy to see everyone performing well. Ridhima, Hashika, Dhinidhi Desinghu and Apeksha Fernandes are all good talents, and are doing very well for their age, and Richa has been on the circuit the longest. It’s amazing to see how different age groups are still going strong and performing well despite the challenges. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I think this is the strongest I have been mentally and physically.
Menstruation can be very difficult to handle in regular life — how do you deal with it during competitions? Have you been taught how to deal with periods/cramps while training, and is your training different then?
I’m a professional athlete, so can’t take off when I’m on my period. I wasn’t taught how to deal with it, but a lot of swimmers use tampons while racing. I had to speak to my gynaecologist and other athletes to see what they do and how they deal with it. My coach, Nihar Ameen, is well aware of what women go through in terms of mood swings and cramps and how to deal with them during training. I’m very comfortable opening up about this with my coach, and he’s always there for me, understands the situation and guides me on how to get through it. For me, the second day is pretty hard, I feel drained out and don’t like cold water touching me, and it’s just really hard to get through it. In the case of gym sessions that day, it’s harder. My gym and my swimming coaches are understanding when I tell them, and are okay if I take it a little easy that day. It’s very important to have such people around you if you are in sports.
Peaking is very important in swimming, and doing it in two consecutive competitions is tough. How did you peak for the senior nationals and the National Games held within a fortnight?
That’s a good question. We only had about 12 days between the senior nationals and the National Games. It was difficult to manage both, but the National Games being a bigger event, and taking place after seven years, made me focus on it. The senior nationals were more of a preparatory-training meet to see where I stood, what shape I was in. Several swimmers pulled out of the nationals to concentrate on the National Games. I had the option, but prepared mentally for both once the schedule was announced.
You won more gold medals at the senior nationals than at the National Games; would you say your performance was better during the nationals?
It was quite decent, considering that I had a three-day drop and the focus was on the National Games. I had peaked long ago in May when I got India’s best time in the 100m backstroke in Canet, France. My goal was to swim faster and get the best Indian time again at the National Games, but that didn’t happen. It’s off-season now, and I’m trying to take a break.
Do you think there is a difference in your performance at the 2021 and 2022 senior nationals?
At the Nationals last year, I was not feeling it as the event took place three months after the Olympics. I was going through a lot mentally. I didn’t want to swim and wanted to take a long break. It was the first time I lost my races, especially the backstroke ones. This year, I redeemed and corrected myself. I disliked the mind space I went to race with last year and wanted to make things right for myself.
Earlier, you mentioned that you were on a break as it’s off-season, what has your routine been like?
It started with three surgeries, and I’ve recovered only in the last couple of days. I had a spur growth, i.e., an extra bone growth on both sides of the septum of my nose. So, I had deviated nasal septum correction along with the removal of my adenoids and tonsils. I was in a lot of pain at the start of my break, and recovering from it was not easy, but I will enter my off-season training soon. This training, unlike my training during the season, will be relatively relaxing. I need to get back into the pool. I’m just recovering from the surgery and taking a lot of rest as the medication is heavy, so I’m resting at home.
How do you plan your off-season training, and what event are you training for next?
We are getting inputs from an expert coach to get fit outside the pool during the off-season. We haven’t decided on next year’s calendar, but my major focus will be on qualifying for the Asian Games. The schedule might be similar to this year: I’ll be racing every month and trying to qualify for the Games next year.
What do you think India needs to do to find itself on the podium on the world stage?
The level of Indian swimming is rising for sure. We had not one but two A qualifications at the Tokyo Olympics, and that had never happened before. While the standard is increasing, we have a long way to go if we compare it with the international level. I see an Olympic medal for India in the next 10 years. I think we need manpower like human resources and inputs from a lot of other experts, which we are getting through collaborations. So, I think we’re on the right track.
(This interview was organised by ENGN, an athlete representation company working with Maana Patel and other Indian athletes to provide them with an opportunity to train at world-class facilities and support them with a nutritionist, and mental and wellness coach)
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