An Olympic medal may seem unimaginable for Indian swimmers at the moment, but Olympian Shikha Tandon assures that it is important to stay on track and that she can see progress in Indian swimming.
In a chat with swimmers Srihari Nataraj and S. P. Likith on the internet from her home in San Francisco, the 35-year-old Shikha, a product manager with “an exercise intelligence company that helps athletes and coaches optimise training, recovery and performance,” said it was encouraging to find Indian swimming looking at the A-qualification mark for the Tokyo Olympics as realistic.
“We have to do it step by step. From trying to achieve ‘A’ qualification for the first time, we can’t be talking about medal in Olympics. We have to look at making semifinals, then final. It will take two or three Olympics. We have the talent, and I want our swimmers to prove me wrong,” said Shikha, in a discussion on Indian swimming, as a member of the advisory board of the Sports School in Bengaluru.
Interestingly, the Sports School, which attempts to integrate education and sports to help the athletes reach their peak quickly, avoiding the conflict between teachers and coaches, has three FINA-certified swimming pools, including one of Olympic size, with 10 lanes. Two more are being built.
Shikha, who missed qualifying for Beijing Olympics by 0.05 second, after competing in Athens, still owns the national records for 50-metre and 100-metre freestyle. A versatile sports star, whose first love was athletics, Shikha emphasised the importance of education and sports for the overall growth and career options for the athletes, who otherwise stared at an uncertain future.
As a female athlete, Shikha encouraged the swimmers and their parents to be open about puberty and related issues, especially for the girls, so that better communication could lead to better clarity of handling things and situations.
Shikha stressed it was important to enjoy the sport, and recalled how she used to be happy even when training alone in the pool. She narrated how she could not lie down to sleep when she had a shoulder surgery and how she swam with one arm in the first session on resumption, two months before the Asian Games in 2006.
‘Use your time well’
Suggesting that it was for the swimmers to emerge from the lockdown as “mentally recharged” or “mentally drained,” Shikha called on the athletes to “use your time well.”
Pointing out that swimmers worldwide were sailing in the same boat during lockdown, Shikha asked the Indian swimmers to capitalise on the extended time for Tokyo Olympics as a golden opportunity to get better and reach higher standards. “You can’t swim, but you can work on the mental aspects, flexibility, stretching, sleep better. Study a little every day. Go online and learn more about your sport, learn other things. There is a lot to do,” she said.
When queried about being overawed by the top swimmers of the world in the Olympic arena, Shikha said it was natural and that she had also experienced it. “They are your idols. When they stand next you, it may be overwhelming. There is bound to be self doubt, because we put them on a pedestal. Swim in your own lane. You can’t control what others do. You can control your race. Focus on your performance,” she said.
Asserting that the only way to reach world standards was to race regularly with better swimmers, Shikha conceded that Indian swimmers needed better exposure. “It is all about confidence, belief and re-focus,” she said about the ways to improving standards.
When compared with progress in badminton and other sports in the country, Shikha said swimming was slowly gaining priority, but there was still a “long way to go.”
Education the key
As a former expert in the US Anti Doping Agency (USADA), Shikha said education was the key, not just for the athletes or their coaches, but also others associated with sport like doctors, physios, strength and conditioning experts, etc. Earlier, the coach was the “one stop shop” for all the requirements and expertise.
Recalling that her parents never “pushed me,” but encouraged, Shikha said ideally parents should support their kids to reach their potential, as not everyone could reach the Olympic standards or win world-class medals. “We all learn time management and the set goals,” said Shikha about being driven towards excellence and being self-motivated.
She was particularly happy to share the amazing manner in which her two-year old daughter, Akhila, was learning things on her own. “We can guide them, but should let them understand themselves,” she said.
Clarifying that there was no right or wrong as far as spending time on the many platforms of social media was concerned, Shikha said she had her first phone when she was 19. “It all depends on how you choose to engage. You don’t eat all the food that you see. If it is a distraction, cut off,” she said.
Looking at the option of college education in the U.S., Shikha, who has a doubles Masters degree in biology and biotechnology from the U.S., said it was hard life as the student athlete had to do wash clothes, cook and clean. “Are you able to handle four years of that life?,” she asked.
Highlighting that Olympic medallists and world record holders were part of the NCAA in the U.S., in Division-1, Shikha said she had benefited by training with swimmers who were “way faster than me.”
Shikha said she had opted to pursue her graduation in India as she was focused on making it to the Olympics and competing in the Asian Games. She also said swimmers were competing in fewer events these days as compared to her, as she participated in almost all events, and gained from the experience.
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