The biggest round of applause belonged to Richa Mishra whenever the 39-year-old climbed onto the podium at the 75th National aquatic championships here. And the most enthusiastic claps came from her competitors.
After spending more than 25 years in competitive swimming, setting records and bagging medals, Richa – who won one gold (400m medley) and two bronze medals (800m and 1500m freestyle) in individual events – stands tall as an epitome of long life in the pool.
She is a source of inspiration for the teenagers and 20-something swimmers, who splash the pool with all their energy in the prime of youth.
In a sport that demands one to be on top of her physical prowess, Richa has shown that mental power is something as well. The body aches, but the mind pushes.
“At 39, winning medals is not a passion anymore. I am a fitness freak and swimming helps me stay fit. I am enjoying life. I feel blessed,” says a content-looking Richa, sporting a wide smile.
It is a great feeling and experience competing with Richa didi. She inspires us by competing at this age.
— Bhavya Sachdeva, 16, who competed alongside Richa in 1500m freestyle
When she began in the 1990s as a youngster, Richa’s priorities and motivations were different.
“My motivation was my middle-class family. When I won money (from swimming), it was very important. From Rs 100, Rs 200 to lakhs now, swimming has given me name, fame and money,” says Richa.
“I competed in my first National Games in Bangalore in 1997 in order to win a washing machine for my mother. Videocon was the title sponsor of the Games and it was giving a washing machine to every winner,” adds the swimmer, “I participated in the relay and won a bronze and ended up getting a music player,” says Richa, who followed in the footsteps of her sister Charu to take to swimming.
“As getting an entry was easy those days, I also competed in triathlon – which included 1500m swimming, 40km cycling and 10km running.”
The Delhi swimmer, who bagged her first medal in the National championships way back in 1998, collected many medals and broke several National records (dubbed as ‘Best Indian performance’ by the Swimming Federation of India), six of which stand to this date.
Her oldest standing record is her 200m butterfly mark of 2:18.66 achieved in 2007 – the time when some of her present-day competitors were toddlers.
At present, Richa’s times may have dropped sharply but she deserves credit for putting up a fight and securing her place among the podium finishers.
One needs tremendous mental fortitude to keep pushing oneself for so long. About a decade back, Richa had shown her mental strength when she fought back into competitive swimming following a two-year suspension due to doping.
As she is about to enter her 40s, Richa – who was not expecting a medal this time – may not say that age is just a number as she experiences the punishment her body takes to remain competitive.
“It is frustrating when you don’t get the time you want and the body pains. But I do well now in medley races because of my endurance training,” she says.
“Now, I need customized training. There is no coach, I have figured out how to train. I train alone as the camps train the youngsters.”
So, what is next for Richa?
“Next, I want to do well in the National Games. This will be my sixth National Games. I don’t know how many athletes (across all sports) have competed in as many as six National Games. Then I want to compete in the coming year.
This helps in my job as well. I joined the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) many years ago and now I am a gazetted officer.”
And, does she want to switch to coaching in future?
“I don’t know as of now because I want to continue. But whenever I quit, I will get into coaching,” says Richa.
For another Delhi girl, 16-year-old Bhavya Sachdeva – who claimed three gold medals and shared the podium with Richa in the 1500m freestyle event in the National championships at the Dr. Zakir Hussain Aquatic Complex here – her co-competitor, who is 23 years older than her, is an inspiring figure.
“It is a great feeling and experience competing with Richa didi. She inspires us by competing at this age. From her, I have learnt never to give up and just to keep going,” says Bhavya, giving a fitting tribute to the icon of longevity in Indian swimming.