Advait Page is 6.45 seconds away from what will be a milestone for Indian swimming in 800m freestyle. For a sport decided on milli-seconds, 6 seconds is 6 seconds far too many. But as the country’s new crop of aquamen attempt the elusive ‘A’ Standard of Olympic qualification, Page’s start to the season at the Singapore National Championships, brings good tidings. The 18-year-old freestyler from Indore won gold with an India record of 8:00.76, slashing a whole 9 seconds from his timing at the same meet last year. In the process he regained the national mark from good friend and arch competitor Kushagra Rawat – who had clocked 8:07.99 at Malaysia two months ago.
His timing on Wednesday brings him far clear of the B Standard for Tokyo (qualification period started March): 8:08.54, though he is keen on becoming one of the first Indians to make the ‘A’-cut: 7:54.31. Advait reckons given his consistent improvement over the last two seasons – where he’s slashed precious seconds over the 1500-free, his pet event – the ‘A’ mark is imminently within his touching distance. “The ‘A’ standard is very challenging which is why India’s top swimmers have also struggled. But given how much we’ve all improved in the last two seasons, the ‘A’ mark is not a distant dream. I’m not the only one, there are others too capable of reaching that ‘A’ standard. Personally, it’s gettable this season, though I’ll have to work very hard,” says the 1500-specialist, with the most promise.
India has never been in the global reckoning in swimming, and cracking the ‘A’ mark is only the first step in getting into elite contention at the Olympics. A restless bunch of teenagers is on the prowl though. Ranked 185 on the FINA list prior to this race, Advait’s 8-minute mark has catapulted him to World No 54 in the current rankings. He is the top-ranked junior in Asia over the 1500-free and was 6th on the world juniors list in the longer race.
What makes him hopeful is how rapidly he’s chomped into the seconds at the big events: starting with the Asian Games where he made the finals in both 800 (clocked 8:09.13, came 8th) and 1500m (finished 7th). “I was struggling a bit in training last two months because after competing at international venues like the Asiad and clocking my best times there, it’s difficult in the domestic meets and in the local pool. I’m not surprised with slashing 9 seconds, but yes was a little nervous given this was the first meet of the season, and I didn’t know where I stood,” he said later. Advait has spent his early years, learning swimming in a ‘L’ shaped pool, and only trained on the Olympic-size 50m pool in a 3-lane facility the last two seasons.
In Wednesday’s race, racing in Lane 5, adjoining Rawat (who finished second with 8:07.29), the 6-footer’s biggest threat was 400m-specialist Lim Glen from Singapore. “Plan was to go with Kushagra open quick but not that quick, and then try to split negative (faster second half). I expected the Lim to go faster, but I couldn’t see him because he was in Lane 3 and that helped my timing, because I pushed assuming he’s much ahead,” he recalled. He swam 4:01 for the first 400, and then 3:59 on the return, which proved his endurance work had paid off.
“I need to improve on my turns and start, and I know I can go much faster as the season unfolds,” he said, informing he was headed to the Gwangju FINA Worlds in July, and the Junior World Championships in August. Given his affinity to the big stage, the swimmer in whom Florida University have shown early cursory interest, expects to push and tame the ‘A’ mark in the coming months. “I realise my responsibility now that I’m swimming for India. I believe in the hardwork I’m putting in my workouts. I don’t want to stress much, and just enjoy swimming in a great quality, shiny pool,” he laughs, comparing the arclights of international venues to the decent-but-nothing-fancy pool back home in Indore.
Advait races 400m Individual Medley on Thursday, and is hoping for a bigger splash in the 1500m over the weekend where he’s in Lane 4. “I’m hoping to cut bigger time in the 1500,” he said, where the ‘A’ mark is 15:07.38, and Advait was on 15:26 last season. Spotted early by club coach Abhilash – with whom he trains still – for his commitment over the long, lonely and dreary distance even at a young age, Advait continues to stay disciplined even while focussing on academics so he gets into a good swim programme university in the US. “He doesn’t eat outside food and never questions heavy workouts in the gym. Apunka kaam hai bas check karna woh bore na ho jaye (My job is to make sure he does not get bored),” Abhilash says, adding that a breakout season is up ahead.