There are race rituals that swimmer Kushagra Rawat is getting a hang of. He is not too chatty around the time of a meet and refuses to acknowledge, even with a ‘Thanks’, when his sister messages an ‘All the best’ ahead of his competition.
“But I can’t really do well unless my elder sister wishes me luck. I don’t reply, but I need to see that message. When young, I wanted to be like her and then beat her in the pool. Now she has to wish me, or it doesn’t feel right,” says the Delhi boy.
His latest outing, at the New South Wales Open Swimming Championship, saw him finish with a bronze medal as well as erase Sajan Prakash’s 400m national freestyle mark, clocking 3:52.75. It helped him get to the ‘B’ standard of Olympic qualification in his pet event, and brought in Part Two of the ritual he’s keen to cultivate.
“Sajan sent me a very nice message that read, ‘I am so proud of you. Keep doing the good work. Take care of your health now as well.’ We are really close friends and he’s always been supportive. He’s one of India’s greatest swimmers for me and my idol. That message meant a lot,” Rawat says.
The Olympic ‘A’ standard is still 6-plus seconds away at 3:46. “The world’s Top 16 make the ‘A’ standard. No one in India has. But many Indian swimmers are inching close,” he added. Rawat also cleared the ‘B’ marks over 800m and 1500m (where he holds the Indian record), but it’s the 400 in which he’s keen and that took him all the way to Gold Coast, Australia, two months back.
Aided by a Sports Authority of India-Glenmark Programme scholarship, Rawat began training with some of Australia’s very best under coach Michael Bohl. It wasn’t the ideal lead-up to the 400m race over the weekend though.
“Four days before the race, I developed a bad back. Some muscle strain. It was a setback, but once I got into competition mode, I didn’t focus on it. It was a good race. My splits were almost evenly paced,” he says.
Rawat’s earliest memories of swimming are of failure. “The first year of Delhi state, I came second last in heats. At the 2015 age-group nationals in 200m Individual Medley, I came last. I medalled in 2017, but was rejected by the SAI academy. I used to get rejected so often that it built up my motivation,” he says of a time when he literally splashed around aimlessly at school in St Xavier’s, at Talkatora, and then at Jhandewalan before he wound up at Bal Bharti Public School at Sir Gangaram Hospital Marg.
“My sister was my inspiration for swimming. And my parents are my biggest motivation. My dad is with me in Australia and has been looking after my physical training. And he cooks everything for me too – cuts fruit, bread butter, makes my whey protein shake, cooks daal, subji, rice, and boiled chicken breast. My family will do anything for me,” Rawat says.
The youngster believes he’s still some paces off his top game, though he’s still conflicted about workouts in the gym and prefers his 45-minute dry-land physical training. “I do just 1-2 sessions a week in the gym. My body tends to get tight if I do lot of weights. It’s not good for distance swimming,” he believes.
Training in Australia was a sea change after he landed Down Under funded by Glenmark. “Everything in my turns, starts and finish was rejigged. The middle part of races is OK. My improvement has been good – I cut 16 seconds over 1500m. Australian coaches focus on strength in the stroke. There’s a lot of analysis through sports science. All sessions are smarter though fewer than in India,” he explains.
One crucial element that literally pulled Rawat back was his time under water right after the turns. “I was losing velocity in the kick under water after the turn. I’ve improved my starts also,” Rawat says.
Improving upon Sajan Prakash’s 3:54.93, set at Thiruvananthapuram in 2018 (and leaving behind the ‘B’ cut of 3:53.58), has been a logical progression of swimming marks improving over a generation. “Sajan was an idol because of his work ethic. He would push others to do well. When I was with him at the India camp, his discipline between workout sessions was excellent. I need to learn from him,” the 20-year-old says.
In fact, it was Sajan who would ignite the fire in Rawat in 2017. “He told me then that he had started training in a serious way a little late. He told me three years ago that it was the right time for me to start working hard and learn from him. That motivated me a lot,” Rawat says.
However, it’s been a conflicting season. “The Coronavirus situation is worse in Australia than in Delhi. Though there’s not been many cases in the Gold Coast, pools are getting shut and meets cancelled,” he says from Sydney, uncertain about how things will pan out in June when he was targeting the Singapore Championship to aim for the ‘A’ cut.
His base in 800/1500 has helped him in endurance work for the 400, complete with a high-elbow technique and all. Guilty of opening very fast earlier and running out of steam, Rawat has cracked the pacing challenge. “1:55 forward, 1:57 on the back. I’m on track,” he says.
Funding has been another challenge, and though Glenmark takes care of his expenses, his father has had to dip into savings to be around him. “The cost of living in Australia is high. A burger costing Rs 100 in India is Rs 250 here,” he says of a number-crunching quite apart from slashing seconds.
But things are moving from splash to a wave in Indian swimming. “We are five swimmers close to the ‘A’ mark. So anytime now,” he promises. “Indian coaches have also improved significantly. Aryan Makhija, Advait Page are doing well in 800-1500 free. We are all good friends outside the pool. Inside the pool, sabko kaatne ka sochna padta hai (you have to think of getting ahead of everyone). Everyone is training abroad, and I realise Australia mein jaan lagaani padegi (work as hard as you can) in training,” he says. Life’s looking up, 400m at a time.