At 28, Virdhawal Khade is talking retirement. For a life lived chasing times, he is helplessly watching time slip away.
India’s fastest swimmer hasn’t trained in a pool in months and is grappling with the prospect that his Tokyo Olympics dreams might die, that he will not be a two-time Olympian.
A fortnight ago, Khade tweeted he was considering retirement if swimming pools continued to remain shut.
The scenario hasn't changed amid the coronavirus sweep. "I don't want to stay in this uncertain period of time for too long because I will just start getting frustrated, and I need to make a lot of decisions in my life,” he tells Sportstar .
“It could be regarding my work or it could be regarding anything else. I don't want to get stuck. I am somebody who always preferred having a clear picture. Normally, even when we swim we have a schedule of what competitions we are doing and what we are preparing for. As of now, there are no competitions and we can't even get into the water. So I don't know if and when we do get into the water and how I am going to feel and how long it would take me to get back into good shape.
"Considering all these factors, it is a little frustrating and I am sure it is frustrating for all the other athletes as well… If we don't start training and if this situation goes on for another month, there is a very good possibility that I might retire," says the man who made it to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 at the age of 16.
Khade was the youngest Indian swimmer to make the Olympics. He missed the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Then, he started resurrecting his swimming career .
At the 2019 National Swimming Championship in Bhopal, Khade achieved the B qualification mark for the Tokyo Olympics with a timing of 22.44 seconds in the 50m freestyle. The A qualification mark is 22.01 seconds. No Indian swimmer has ever achieved the A-mark. Khade had his eyes set on becoming the first.
The B-mark qualification will only ensure an invitation to the Olympics if the total available quota slots (878) are not filled.
"I have already spoken to my family regarding this (retirement) and they trust my judgement. My coach and teammates want me to swim because they feel I can perhaps qualify for the Olympics, but it's difficult starting from zero and trying to qualify in just about eight months," says Khade, who became the first Indian to break into the top 50 of FINA World Rankings in 2010.
"It's not an easy thing to do. I think all the good form we had got into over the past couple of years leading up to the Olympics is gone now because we haven't gotten into the water for three months. I have to consider very strongly if the gamble is worth taking. If you compare me to the other swimmers, I am much older. I have been actively working with the state (Maharashtra) government, I have been married for three years , and I have to think about my future.”
Khade is honest about his standing in the present scenario and the A qualifying mark.
"I don't know about others but for me, it's definitely tough. If I start swimming today I would probably do 24 seconds. That is three seconds away from the target I had set. So, it's definitely challenging. As every day goes by, it is becoming more unlikely and difficult.”
- The Mental Challenge -
Before the lockdown, Khade was riding high on confidence having finished fourth in the 2018 Asian Games, despite a knee surgery. He was on schedule to travel to the United States for a training camp. But, the travel restrictions forced him to stay in Mumbai.
"In the past, I have taken some decisions, taking into account the circumstances at those times. I qualified for the Olympics in 2008 in three events and it was a dream back then to go for another Olympics and perhaps win a medal. We did believe that it was possible. Unfortunately, I couldn't make the team in 2012 and 2016 even after getting the B qualification. It was an eye-opener," the Arjuna Award recipient says.
"I had to think about my future back then as well and got into the government job and right now it's pretty much the same situation. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown, nothing is in our control.”
Even one available pool would help to stay motivated, believes Khade. “If we can swim regularly, we can at least convince ourselves that we are in good shape and keep going. Right now, it's very difficult mentally to prepare for something when you are not swimming at all."
With the earliest competition for Olympics qualification scheduled next year, Khade is doing what he can to stay fit and not put on weight.
-'Setback for Indian swimming'-
Several countries, including Thailand, Australia and the United Kingdom, have allowed swimmers to return to training.
When asked if the government is keeping the pools locked, fearing people might use it for recreational purposes, Khade says, "I think for sure that has happened. People who are making these decisions don't know too well how a competitive swimmer trains or how a training session goes about. I think they must have seen pictures of crowded swimming pools during summer camps and that's why they are so paranoid about opening up the pools. Obviously, if a few hundred people are trying to get into the pool at the same time, social distancing would not be possible.
"I think they need to understand that that's not how competitive swimmers train. The federation and the sports authority need to get through to the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs) and make sure they understand that at least competitive swimmers get a few hours every week… As swimmers, we can't improve without swimming at all. No matter how much we train on land, it's not going to help us swim faster.”
Khade fears the pandemic will impact Indian swimming. “We are going to lose out on a lot of good talent."
- 'Challenge to start swimming again' -
Resuming training in the pool, when it happens, will bring its own set of challenges, says Khade.
"Once we get into the pool there definitely will be a lot of frustration among the swimmers, at least for the first month. The last memory most of us have in the pool is swimming fast and feeling really good. But now it will be like we are trying to learn how to swim. We won't be as fit, fast or strong in the water.
“A lot of young swimmers will need a good support system to stay motivated and the coaches will play a much bigger part than they have in the past, and also the parents. They need to tell their children to be positive,” he says.
Khade sees a silver lining in fellow swimmer Sajan Prakash (200m butterfly), who also has attained a B qualification mark for Tokyo Olympics, and is now training in Thailand.
"Sajan has been the fortunate one. He is training and will have an advantage. But, whoever hasn't been able to get into the water will have a tough time. It is just getting more unlikely by the day.”
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