Kerala youngsters ignite medal hopes

Kerala has produced some of India’s best swimmers, including Wilson Cherian and Sebastian Xavier and now Sajan Prakash but its women were nowhere in that range until recently.

Ernakulam's young stars (from left to right): Shreya Mary Kamal, Sanaa Mathew and Liyana Mary Umer at the Kerala State senior swimming championship in Thrissur.

Ernakulam's young stars (from left to right): Shreya Mary Kamal, Sanaa Mathew and Liyana Mary Umer at the Kerala State senior swimming championship in Thrissur.   -  K. K. Najeeb

A few years ago, when she was living in Dubai, Liyana Fathima Umer used to hate swimming. Her older cousins went for swimming classes with her and when they picked up the sport fast, it upset her.

“I hated swimming and I would make up the silliest of excuses to not go for it,” revealed the 14-year-old in a chat with Sportstar on the sidelines of the State senior championships in Thrissur.

But later, when they moved to Kochi, her dad got a surprise call from Liyana’s new school, Global Public School.

“Bhagya ma’am, our school’s swimming coach then, called up my parents and said, ‘she’s very good…can you send her for morning coaching too’. My dad couldn’t believe it,” said Liyana who now has Santhosh Kumar as her coach in school.

Liyana won Kerala’s lone women’s medal, a 50m butterfly bronze, at the Senior Nationals in Thiruvananthapuram last year.

Making a comeback from a shoulder injury, Liyana took it easy at the two-day State championship but still came very close to toppling her own 50m butterfly record for the gold.

Kerala has produced some of India’s best swimmers, including Wilson Cherian , Sebastian Xavier and now Sajan Prakash but its women are nowhere in that range.

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That could be changing now with girls from Kochi like Liyana, Shreya Mary Kamal and Sanaa Mathew showing promise.

Just 13, Shreya won the best woman swimmer award after a five-gold haul which came with records in the 200 and 400 individual medley.

“I have a paper with the Olympic record timing on my cupboard and that keeps inspiring me. I want to go to the Olympics one day,” said Shreya who has former State champion M.K. Archana as her coach at the Rajagiri School, Kalamassery.

Meanwhile Sanaa, moulded into a fine swimmer by coach Saji Kumar at the Regional Sports Centre, swept the backstroke events toppling Soni Cyriac’s long-standing records in all three.

A few years ago, Ernakulam girls did not figure prominently in Kerala’s swimming map but that has changed now. With many prominent schools having their own pools, swimming is fashionable and parents are willing to shell out big bucks too.

“A top quality swimsuit could cost Rs 30,000,” said a parent.

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There are many 25m pools in Kochi and only a couple of 50m pools in Kochi and when State and National meets are held in longer pools, it turns out to be a problem.

Clearly, the girls have a long way to go.

“We have not had a Kerala woman dominating the National scene in the last 10 years or so,” said Archana.

“Our girls need to give more time for swimming but, with stress on academics, often schools are not willing to offer this. Top girls from prominent swimming cities, like Bengaluru, spend more time in pool than in school, that’s not the case here.”

Liyana, however, feels that the State is close to finding the one it has been waiting for, for long.

“There aren’t many female swimmers up there in the National scene but pretty soon, I think there will be…very, very soon,” she said.

Will she be the game-changer?

“I don’t know…I hope so, maybe I can.”