Virdhawal Khade may have missed out on an Asian Games medal by the narrowest of margins, but a coastal town in Maharashtra is unlikely to hold that against the Olympian swimmer.
The 26-year-old finished fourth in the men’s 50m freestyle event, finishing just one-hundredth of a second behind the bronze medallist, after breaking his own national record in the heats. It came nine months after he gave up his bureaucratic job to give his swimming career another shot.
Khade exchanged the swimming pool for an office for five years – more than two years as tahsildar at Malvan in Sindhudurg district – and his then subordinates remember wondering how he will fare in his new avatar.
Everyone in the government office knew who he was. The immediate concern, though, was how would someone who’s spent his entire life ripping through a swimming pool fare behind a desk.
“Mujhe pata nahi tha agar wo sab kaam sambhaal payenge ya nahi,” Amol Kadam, a clerk in the tahsildar’s office, recalls. “He’s an athlete, but it’s a whole different game when you have to do administration work.”
The fear did subside, but only after the “boss” instilled a peaceful and easy-going environment in the office.
“Bade free type ke boss the,” says Kadam. “Kabhi gussa nahi, bas shanti se kaam karte the. Unhe dekhte hi sab kaam dil laga ke karne lage.”
When the 6-foot-3 swimmer broke onto the international swimming stage, winning gold at the 2008 Youth Commonwealth Games in Pune, he was awarded a spot in the Indian team for the Beijing Olympics. Subsequently, the Maharashtra government gave him a job through their sports quota. But in 2012, aged just 20, he decided to take up that offer.
“A Tahsildar, an executive magistrate of the taluka,” Khade explained his role to The Indian Express in March. “In Malvan, that’s what I was doing. Before that in Borivali, I was with the encroachment removal authority. That’s a lot of slum rehab work, dealing with illegal constructions.”
Swimming had effectively been relegated in his priority list. And when he was transferred to Malvan, it stopped for all intents and purposes.
“There was so much workload that I didn’t want to make that extra effort to wake up early in the morning and look for a swimming pool because there wasn’t any in the town. I didn’t want to go through that grind,” he said. “I wasn’t swimming, so I eventually put on 20 kg.”
Alone, in a new setting and far from the athletic and competitive world he had known, Khade made peace with himself. Still, something was missing.
Kadam, who lived near the shore, remembers waking up early one morning and taking a glance outside his bedroom window. “I couldn’t believe it!” he starts laughing as he recites the tale. “Raosaheb was running up and down the coast. He had been in office only a few days and was already shocking everyone with his free nature. But this whole athletic thing was completely new. Sab pareshaan ho gaye office main.”
At 6 AM everyday, Khade would head to the coast and run four to five km. Sometimes, he’d cycle along the shore too. And when he came to know that Kadam lived nearby, he’d drag his clerk along for a morning run too.
“I still go running in the morning,” Kadam adds. “People in office used to wonder how he managed to do his fitness drills in the morning, then come and work diligently in office, go to sites for fieldwork, and then repeat the same drill everyday. Then I got to show off too.”
Khade’s stint in Malvan ended in November last year, when he was transferred to Mumbai, a city with no shortage of swimming pools. His superior was adamant for him to get back to training, even agreeing to move him to the main training centre in Bangalore. The shirt-trouser uniform was replaced by Speedos, as he resumed training under the tutelage of Dronacharya Awardee Nihar Ameen.
By March, he’d raise eyebrows among competitors when he travelled to Singapore for his first international meet in five years.
“I used to race them in 2011-12. They hadn’t seen me for a long time, so they assumed I was coaching,” he said.
Khade ended that meet with a gold medal in the 50m freestyle, the same event in which he was just short of winning a medal in Jakarta on Tuesday.
Back in Malvan, his former colleagues followed the exploits of their old ‘Raosaheb.’ They all knew the desk job wasn’t meant for him. “He could have gone for his morning run anywhere in Malvan,” explains Kadam, whom Khade called ‘Bhausaheb.’ “But he ran along the coast. Near the water. That’s where he belonged.”