Virdhawal Khade: ‘I had forgotten how to perform on the big stage’

The Indian swimmer eyes a podium finish at Asian Games after having put behind a period of career stagnation.

Virdhawal Khade wasn’t at his best at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year; he says he has learnt to swim faster in the last two months.   -  S. Mahinsha

He upstaged an Olympic champion on the comeback trail but Virdhawal Khade, one of India’s most accomplished swimmers, admits he had all but “forgotten how to perform at the big stage” during a phase in his career.

Khade has risen to prominence again after having outpaced Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling in the 100-metre freestyle event at the Singapore National Championships. The performance couldn’t have come at a better time for the 26-year-old Maharashtrian as he prepares for the Asian Games in Indonesia after a less-than-impressive show at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast earlier this year.

“The Commonwealth Games was the first big competition after 2010 and maybe I had just forgotten how to perform at the big stage. I was training very hard but wasn’t able to put it together. I think between the Commonwealth Games and now, I have learned how to swim faster,” Khade told PTI.

Stagnation

The Asian Games triggers good memories for the imposing swimmer, who had won a bronze medal — India’s first in 24 years — during the 2010 edition in Guangzhou. That performance had fetched him the job of a Tehsildar with the Maharashtra government, something that ended up far from being an incentive.

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Khade had sidelined swimming to focus on his job. During this time, he missed participating in two Olympics, the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and the Asian Games the same year.

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“What happened to me was because of my achievements. The Maharashtra government recruited me but our State policy was a little too restrictive for athletes. So that didn’t allow me initially to come out and train and while I was working I missed out on the Asian Games, Olympics, and Commonwealth Games,” Khade, who in 2008 had been the youngest swimmer from India to qualify for the Olympics, said.

‘I knew I wasn’t done’

A serious knee injury added to his woes and Khade’s career seemed all but over. However, he had other plans. “I always had swimming at the back of my mind even while working. I knew I wasn’t done. There were a few things like winning a gold medal in the Asian Games, giving the Olympics another crack which was incomplete. I didn’t swim for some 3-4 years. That always kept bugging me,” he said.

The comeback was the 2018 Commonwealth Games. He couldn’t make it past the heats in Gold Coast but began to regain the confidence of being at the big stage. A month and a half later, he managed to edge past Schooling, Singapore’s first ever Olympic gold-medallist.

“It was a competition I participated in the build-up to the Asian Games. Before the competition, we found out that he (Schooling) was racing there and it was a very big deal. I wasn’t focusing much on the 100-metres as it wasn’t my main event. But I think it was my day and somehow I was able to put myself together enough to be able to beat him,” he recalled.

Confident

“Nobody thought I was going to win because he is an Olympic winner and he is training for the Asian Games. It was a big shock,” Khade, who once held the national record in five different categories, said.

Khade is now confident of a podium finish at the Asian Games, despite competition from strong swimmers from China and Japan. “The Chinese and Japanese are definitely amongst the top 10 in the world but the rate at which I have been progressing and if I fix a couple of things like my start, I can swim as fast as them. I just need to put things together,” he said.

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