India’s elite swimmers felt like fish out of water when they got into the pool for the first few days after restrictions put in place due to the pandemic were lifted.
Kushagra Rawat felt his head bouncing while breathing out of water and knew his swimming rhythm had gone haywire. Backstroke specialist Srihari Nataraj had no awareness of how his arms were moving in water the first 3-4 days on his return to the pool. Even 18 years spent with a thousand repetitions day in, day out, could not ensure that the paddle would stay intact when India’s three elite swimmers – Sajan Prakash also trained in Dubai – resumed training.
Back in India now, they realise hitting pre-pandemic era speeds is going to be difficult. “This is going to take longer. Two months more perhaps,” Srihari (19), said.
Having camped in Dubai on the back of as sturdy dry-land training as was possible at home, Srihari, dipped his toes back into training happy that he was back in water. “It felt weird first 3-4 days and there was no feel of water. I had no idea what was happening with my arms nor awareness of where they were going, though they were moving. I couldn’t grab any water. It came back slowly in two weeks,” says the Bangalorean backstroker.
He will stay locked in his room for two more days on his return, since he has grandparents’ safety (above 70) to consider. “After that my parents are deciding if I should continue in Bangalore or look at training abroad,” he adds.
Srihari says he’s still a month or two out from hitting top timing.
Rawat concurs. “Target was to get as close to previous bests as possible. But I’m not very close to my best at all,” says the 18-year-old, who is hoping Talkatora waters in Delhi are allowed to open at least for competitive swimmers in the coming months. “Or else I’ll go to Bangalore. I’ll need at least a month and half,” says the 800-freestyle specialist.
On finding the elusive feel of water after five months of training restricted to gym work, Rawat said, “First three weeks, body was sore from all the gym work (he’s set up makeshift workout equipment in his terrace). But initially there was no tempo at all. My head was bouncing weirdly while breathing. The hips were not aligned and I was leaning more on the right. And sometimes the left hand was going out too much. I was just not getting the stroke – something that came so naturally at the start of the year.”
Srihari would lend his GoPro system for Rawat to analyse what limb movements were going astray.
A fine of 3000 dirhams awaited anyone caught walking around without a mask anywhere outside the perimeter of the pool, Rawat says. “And if someone wasn’t following social distancing, then after two warnings they would just cancel the session. Didn’t happen to us, but it was strictly enforced,” he adds.
The Indians swam a couple of hours morning and evening. “But if the session started at 7.30, we had to walk in just before the start, and vacate by 9.30,” Rawat recalls.
While the Delhi lad had online college classes to attend, spare time saw the trio play table tennis at the hotel. “I wasn’t very good. Hari (Nataraj) was the best,” he laughs.
The hotel chef was also sounded out on adding daal to the menu for the Indians, and ramping up on veggies in the salads. “Everyone had a couple of extra kgs to lose,” Rawat added.
For Srihari, the weather was the big problem. “Put me in a sub-zero place and I wouldn’t mind. But I’m not a big fan of the heat,” he would say. The trio got themselves tested once before leaving and twice on entry and exit from Dubai.
BACK TO HOME BASE
Back at home now, the Swimming Federation of India has drawn up its safety guidelines penned by renowned coach Nihar Amin. SFI recently spelt out its zero-tolerance policy on breaking safety rules. President Jayaprakash said, “We’ll always put lives in front of any sport so I urge everyone not to go back even 1 per cent on SOPs. We are requesting state governments to reopen pools for sportspersons but strict action will be taken against anyone deviating from protocols.”
— @swimmingfederationofindia (@swimmingfedera1) October 19, 2020
With four swimmers in the world’s Top 40, the SFI has ambitious plans to kit out two pools – one in Delhi and the Dravid Padukone centre in Bangalore – with hi-tech wearables to record parameters and high-end bio-mechanic equipment like underwater cameras for race analyses.
However, even as several states exercise caution in reopening pools for all racing swimmers above 12, the task is cut out for India’s top competitive pack.
Amin’s SOP specifies minimum chlorine levels at 1.8-2 ppm at 7-7.4 pH and filtration two hours before and after every session. Only two swimmers per lane are allowed with outdoor showers, and they have been instructed to use dead jump or start blocks to enter water and avoid touching handrails and pool ladders.
The SOP also spells out detailed milestones for resumption with emphasis on shoulder injury prevention and micro-cycles of increasing load and reps. It’s only in the third month that focusing on the target speciality stroke is recommended. “While returning to training, an aerobic base endurance level has to be re-developed. This is usually done in the freestyle or front-crawl stroke. As basic endurance improves over the first eight weeks or so, swimmers should swim of their main stroke – butterfly for example will increase gradually. Sharper focus on main stroke volume and intensity should come in the third micro-cycle. This is a good way to be cautious and prevent injury after a long layoff,” Amin explained.