It’s still early days in the season and the Singapore National Championships 2018 was only a lung-opener for home favourite and the 100m butterfly Olympic champion Joseph Schooling. But, though not quite igniting an inferno and while competing in the 100m freestyle (not Schooling’s pet event which is 100-fly), India’s Virdhawal Khade unexpectedly lit a flicker in the pool when he picked gold ahead of the Rio hero, late on Friday.
Khade clocked 50.26 – his season’s best, with less than two months to go for the Asian Games. The Asian record over the 100m-free is 47.65 owned by Chinese Ning Zetao and claimed in 2014. Khade will go head to head against Schooling in what is the Singaporean’s key event – 50m fly on Saturday. The 6’2” Indian had won the Asian Games bronze over the single lap ‘fly race in 2010.
The 26-year-old from Kolhapur who now trains at the Padukone-Dravid centre in Bangalore, had only last week qualified for the Asian Games, shaving a few mili-seconds: 22.55 in 2009 to 22.52 in the 50m freestyle. “He’s been doing well in the freestyle and I was happy he was improving while we are in the middle of preparation for the Asian Games. But I did not expect him to beat an Olympic champ in a race. Though it is another event, Schooling is still a strong swimmer in freestyle, and a win against him is a psychological boost for Viru,” coach Nihar Ameen said.
Khade had been out of the sport for a long time, but Ameen reckons his charge is back to peak motivation. “I’m just happy he’s chosen to come back and it;s exciting heading into the Asian Games again,” Ameen added.
The race saw Khade in control of the lead for the whole time and unfettered by thoughts of how he was racing against a name that had pipped Michael Phelps two years ago – around the same time when Khade had almost given up on his career and turned his back on the pool, not even following the Games still nursing regret and bitterness over an incomplete career. “There was absolutely no financial support whatsovever for him when he left the sport. He had to take up the job that the Maharashtra government offered him, because he couldn’t keep on taking dole-outs from his father. We had hoped he would find a way to practice while keeping that job, but you can’t train for Olympics when you’re expected to be in office and far away from a decent pool,” Ameen explained.
However, the itch to compete was back by mid-2017, and things seem to be coming together for Khade, who Ameen reckons is stronger as he’s grown older after dropping off the curve. “At 19, I knew he wasn’t physically completely developed and there’s quite a bit of growing ahead of you. Now he’s come to terms with where he is in life, there’s maturity and he’s much more focused. He’s a lot stronger physically, which I’d expected he would be by his mid-20s,” Ameen explained.
What’s working for Khade also, is that for the first time in his life, he has access to world-class facilities. “The structure is top-grade at the Padukone-Dravid centre. Everything from the pool, the gym, physios are all within 50 metres of each other. Even something as basic as FINA-recognised starting blocks was a rarity for him. Maybe, just two pools in India have it, and the Delhi ones are not maintained that well after the 2010 Games. So, to get everything together like state-of-the-art facilities other countries have access to, is something that’s pushing him,” the coach said.
Khade has completely revamped his stroke and strategy for the 100m freestyle, since his return. “The way he races the 100-free is totally new,” Ameen says. But over the weekend, it will be the 50-fly, with the Singaporeans and two teams from Victoria and New South Wales also in the fray. “50m sprints are anybody’s event,” Ameen says. Joseph Schooling is the name to beat, but Virdhawal Khade will back himself to kick hard and blaze away.
Commenting on his wins, Khade said, “It’s good to see the training is working and I am getting faster every time I race. I am very motivated for the Asian Games. It is all about staying injury-free and doing what I have been doing in the past months.”