India’s 50m butterfly record holder Divya Satija is setting her sights on the Asian Games
Often viewed as a recreational or a luxurious pass time, swimming is a seriously underrated sport in India. While the country is brimming with talented swimmers, their stories of glory and accomplishments are rarely featured in the sports news or are usually overshadowed by the latest cricketing gossip. However, Indian swimmers continue to impress on the global stage and let their achievements do the talking with relentless hard work, dedication and persistence.
In this exclusive interview with SPOGO, Indian swimmer Divya Satija speaks about her journey so far, becoming the national record holder of women’s 50m butterfly, her influences, overcoming challenges, future goals and more!
Q 1) When were you first introduced to swimming and what motivated you to take up the sport professionally?
I started swimming when I was 10 or 11 years old. My dad used to swim recreationally when we were on vacations and I would observe and wonder what swimming was like, the feeling of the water and so on. There was a swimming pool in my school and that introduced me to the sport and because I was already familiar with what swimming was about, getting into the water was easy. I was a little better than others because I had an idea of what swimming is because of my observations and I was invited to join the elite batch by my coach. The kids in that batch were already swimming quite well and in a year, I became the fastest swimmer in the district. After that I competed in the state and national level competitions and that’s how I started.
Q 2) As the national record holder of the women’s 50m butterfly and winner of a number of accolades internationally, what is your proudest achievement so far?
My only aim was to represent India and for many years I was working very hard to make that happen. My first International was at the Asian Age Group Championship in 2019 where I won my first individual bronze medal. However, the thought kept playing in my head that I had not won a gold medal at the International level, and when you do, the national anthem is played and the flag is hoisted and I wanted to experience that. In the South Asian Games in December 2019, I won four gold medals and that was my best achievement because I also heard the national anthem after my victory.
Q 3) Who are some of the most influential people in your journey as a swimmer so far and why?
I’m a person who gets easily inspired by people who cross my path. When I started swimming in 2006-2007, there was a girl named Richa Mishra who was a star swimmer and I always admired her because she used to win gold in every event. After that, when I started training with international medallists, I learnt small things from different players. Everybody would give me small tips and I would add it to my swimming ability, swimmers in India such as Sandeep Sejwal and Virdhawal Khade have always motivated me and internationally, Sarah Sjöström has inspired me and I want to be like her. She is the world record holder of the women's 100m butterfly.
Q 4) How has the experience of training under Dronacharya winner Nihar Ameen been at the Dravid-Padukone centre of excellence in Bangalore?
Since I've been swimming at my school, there have been different experiences with different coaches. Being at PDCSE at the top in athletics, the training and the culture over there is totally different. There are players who have already represented India who are working hard to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves. The environment pushes you to work hard, you can't back out, that's what the environment is like. They take care of everything, we have physios available and we have the big sized pool which is the only FINA approved pool in India. They have a bunch of other facilities available there as well for strength and conditioning. All the different coaches are working with you according to your performance.
Q 5) What are some of the challenges that you faced in your journey as a professional swimmer? How did you overcome them?
If I compare my past and my future, what all changes I've made to achieve all that I currently have, the biggest challenge I’ve faced is anxiety. To deal with that, I have worked with psychologists that Simply Sports provided me with. We also face challenges with nutrition. “You are what you eat”. So all these things need to be taken care of. The challenges always keep on coming, you have to handle the smaller things and learn from them. I can't even call them challenges because I have overcome them and it's all a part of life and they have helped me.
Q 6) What are your goals and aspirations for the future? How do you plan to achieve them?
Currently my goal is to win a medal at the Asian Games. To achieve that I have been working on every small detail that I can do to improve myself. If I aim at 50 meter butterfly, I have to get a perfect start. I need strength in my legs so I can push myself to a better start for the best outcome. I need to work on my underwater kick so I have to take small steps to get there. In the dolphin, we have underwater recordings to notice the smallest errors and change them and implement it in practice. We have coaches who came from outside the country at the national camp who made recordings, did the power test and analysis with the coach. We sit together, study the videos, work on the minute things and work towards changing those. I work on my strength and power because that's what I need in 50 meters.
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Indian para-athletes represent their country and I believe we deserve more support: Niranjan Mukundan, Indian Para Swimmer
There are inspiring stories and then there is the journey of Indian Para Swimmer Niranjan Mukundan. When they say that your only limit is your own mindset, it’s certainly not applicable for this particular para-athlete. It requires a special character, mental strength and will to succeed to not only overcome 19 surgeries but win 50 International medals, become Junior World Champion and the Asian record holder, the youngest winner of India’s National Award, be recognized by Forbes 30 Under 30 in Asia 2019 and become a TEDx speaker.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Niranjan Mukundan gets up close and personal with his inspirations, motivations, training, challenges, proudest achievements, mental strength, family support, future goals and much more!
Q 1) Can you please take us through your journey, how were you first introduced to swimming and who has been your inspiration, what motivated you to take up the sport professionally?
I was born with a medical condition called Spina Bifida and for the same I have undergone 19 major/minor surgeries since birth. I was introduced to swimming at the age of 7-8 as part of aqua therapy to strengthen my legs and other muscles. That's when I fell in love with the sport and decided to take it up professionally. My family is/was my pillar of strength in taking up swimming and have supported me in my journey till today.
Q 2) While India has seen para - athletes perform on the world stage, most of them struggle to get sponsorship. Have you ever faced these challenges and how did you overcome them?
Initially yes, that was because people did not have the awareness about para sports and para athletes, but over the years that perspective has changed and I wouldn't say we get a lot of sponsorship but if corporates and other companies come forward and help us (the para-athletes) it would be great for us to represent our country and win laurels at the highest levels.
Q 3) As a para-athlete in India, how difficult was it to pursue swimming? How did you train to become a champion?
There weren't many coaches who were specialised in para swimming training. My coach Mr. John Christopher also initially worked a lot on my body balance and buoyancy to figure out my strengths and weaknesses. Then we slowly improved on my technique, stroke and speed.
Q 4) Does the Indian sports ecosystem provide adequate support through infrastructure and training support? How did you overcome them?
I would say we still don't have differently abled friendly infrastructure everywhere in our country. I hope that situation changes in the near future. I have been training abroad for a few years now and I spend a lot of time overseas with High Performance Training.
Q 5) You have won 50 International medals for India and have received recognition for your contribution. What is your proudest achievement so far?
Crossing the 50 International medals mark was a great milestone for me as I became the first Indian Para Swimmer to win over 50 medals representing our country. I think getting the title "Junior World Champion" is something to remember as well as winning at the Asian games was another thing to cherish. Making it to the Forbes 30 U30 Asia list was also a great surprise in 2019. I also have a nickname "Medal Machine".
Q 6) How important of a role have your parents/ mentors / coach played in your career? How did they support you in your journey so far?
I have been blessed to have this family, my parents, my sister and my late grandmother (who succumbed to Covid recently) who was also a big inspiration for me and she was the one who introduced me to para swimming at that time as both my parents were working. My family has been very supportive in general and had my back everytime in whatever decisions I have taken. My parents are more like my friends and have always stood by my happy times as well as hard ones. My coach Mr. John Christopher was the one who spotted me at a young age and I am what I am because of him today. We have a great bond together as an athlete and a coach. A foundation named GoSports Foundation joined my journey a few years ago and they have been helping me with access to specialists like nutritionists, physiotherapists and other swimming related needs.
Q 7) It is said, para-athletes overcome their physical inability with the power of their mind? Can you guide us on how you condition yourself to develop mental strength?
I always move around with a positive attitude and that's something which keeps me grounded. You have to be mentally strong as you are physically working towards your goals and It takes years and years of hard work to reach your goals and dreams. You should be willing to be patient and sacrifice small things to achieve those big goals which are all in the head first and then the body.
Q 8) What do you think needs to be done to support more para-athletes to be successful at the highest level?
I definitely think that if we could get some push/boost from the corporates and companies investing in us, in our training, in our future goals that would be really wonderful. We also represent our country at the highest levels and I feel we deserve that support.
Q 9) What are your future goals and aspirations? How do you plan to achieve them?
Currently I have clocked the "B" qualifying time for the Paralympics 2021 and I am 0.11 microseconds away from the "A" qualifying time. The current pandemic situation has put my qualifications on hold as there are a lot of international travel restrictions. I hope to get the qualification as soon as the situation gets better. It's been my dream to represent our country at the Paralympics, so I hope to qualify. In the longer term, I have the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games coming up next year 2022 and I want to start my own sporting academy to help the next generation of athletes (both for para as well as abled).
Q 10) You are an inspiration to millions out there, what would your advice be for those, physically challenged individuals, who want to take up sports and bring laurels for their families and the country?
Do what you love and love what you do, that would surely take you to heights and make you reach your goals and dreams.
Rising swimming star Apeksha Fernandes is one to watch out for!
From Gertrude Ederle to Simone Manuel, female swimmers have a longstanding history in breaking barriers not just for their impact in the water but also for their pursuit in promoting equality in sports. Apeksha Fernandes at just 15 years old has already created an impact both domestically and at the international stage. She holds 9 national records in Junior Nationals and is the current Junior National Champion holding the best timing for Indian women in 200 meters breaststroke in both long and short course. With a total of 146 gold, 61 silver and 31 bronze medals to her name, she has been felicitated with the best swimmer trophy by the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Sri Vijay Rupani.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Apeksha reveals her journey so far, the unique challenges she has faced in pursuit of excellence and balancing school and swimming to keep her ambitions alive.
At what age did you start swimming and when did you realize that it’s a sport you want to compete in?
I started swimming at the age of 5, a happy toddler waddling behind my mother. I would accompany her to the pool and just splash around in the water and be in a world of my own while she swam. She was the one who introduced me to swimming considering how much I enjoyed myself in the water. I learnt how to swim when I joined a summer swim camp headed by my current coach, Dr. Reddy. We started from floating to kicking lessons and then proceeded to stroke development. It was during this camp that my coach selected me and decided to train me for competitive swimming. Initially I swam for participation and exposure and I started picking up interest and gold medals at national meets not before the age of 12. I like the feel the competitions have. The blocks, lanes, racers and the adrenaline. There is no better feeling than adrenaline coursing through your veins before any race and that is one of the main reasons I enjoyed racing.
Who has been the biggest motivating factor and support in your journey?
My parents have been the biggest source of motivation for me. They’ve always stood behind me through thick and thin and have never left my side no matter what. I have nothing but respect for the dedication and relentlessness. They have guided me and have played a major role in where I stand today. Michael Phelps and Serena Williams are two people I look up to as they are the phoenix, a majestic bird known for rising from its ashes and they serve as the human embodiment of the same.
What would you consider as your greatest achievement so far?
My greatest achievement till today would be winning medals for our country. I’ve won quite a few medals at the international meets I’ve participated in, but the medal resting on my chest, our national flag draped around my shoulders and standing on the podium listening to our national anthem would be the highlight in the South Asian Games.
What are the challenges you have faced in your pursuit to compete?
The major challenge I’ve faced till now would be fear. As an eight-year-old, I was constantly inhibited by the performance of my fellow athletes. Seeing them constantly bag every single medal and championship trophy, I always thought that they were invincible and that I could never be at par with them. I was able to perform only after I broke away from the fear.
As a student who is still in school, how do you balance your education with swimming?
I’ve been able to balance and succeed in both because of the tremendous support I’ve received from both my parents and my school. The school has played a vital role in my success as it has always stood by me and given all the help and support ever asked for. My principal, Madam Jane Kotian along with her team would go out of her way to help me in any way possible right from allowing me to report to school much late and giving me leave whenever asked for, to coordinating with the teaching staff to aid in better understanding of topics I missed out in class and even exempting me from writing major examinations. All our requests were always approved and she has been very warm and approachable at any given time. My parents have been helping as well, right from driving me from the pool to the school and back to teaching me at any given time of the day regardless of their busy schedules.
Tell us about your experience training under Dr. Mohan Reddy
Training under Dr, Reddy has been very interesting. Everything about the schedule has never failed to motivate me into giving it my all during the training and at the meets. He has been very unique in raising our spirits and has always been very enthusiastic and passionate about swimming and training. He has been able to establish a very beautiful and strong student and teacher bond among all the swimmers under him.
How do you think India can improve in terms of infrastructure/ facilities/ training etc. so that swimmers can compete at the highest level?
In my opinion, sports other than just cricket need media visibility along with sponsorship and support from the government. The lack of infrastructure, passion and scientifically trained personnel along with a well trained and equipped team of support staff leads to many competent and performing athletes training in countries abroad. Many of these elite athletes use their achievements in sports to present themselves as all-rounders in their resume and get admissions in the best universities abroad. Similar to brain drain, this is how India loses many of its promising athletes.
However, the government has recently launched various schemes in order to support and nurture young and growing talent and we hope that it reaches many deserving and upcoming athletes.
What are your goals for the future? What would you like to achieve?
As I firmly believe that one can balance both academics and sports, it is my dream to pursue a career in the field of biomedical science and research along with training during my college years and god willing, to represent the country.
Personal growth is more important than any swimming medal
Records are meant to be broken and nobody knows this better than Kareena Shankta, a young swimmer from Mumbai. She has broken the Indian National Women’s record in 100m breaststroke at the last Khelo India Games, leading to Prime Minister Narendra Modi commending her on his Republic Day Mann Ki Baat. When she’s not breaking national records, Kareena is also a talented musician who has completed grade 8 in keyboard from the Trinity College in London. She also gives back by selling her art online to raise funds to support relief efforts and Jharkhand and Bihar.
In an exclusive interview with SPOGO, Kareena Shankta spoke about her journey so far, achievements, the challenges that she has faced, her inspirations, mental health and balancing swimming with academics.
How old were you when you started swimming and what motivated you to take up the sport professionally?
I have always loved the water. Every vacation was spent on the deck of the pool or at the beach. However, I got into serious competitive swimming at the age of 12. In school, we used to have a dedicated class for swimming and my school teacher, Deepak Sir was supportive. He encouraged my parents to enroll me in a swimming class at the local club.
What are some of your achievements and what is the most memorable moment in your career so far?
One of the most memorable moments for me was during my first competitive year of swimming. I reached the Sub-Junior Nationals in 2016 and won my first National medal. It was a major accomplishment for me and I still cherish that memory. The School National Aquatic Games at Delhi in 2017, was something I keep trying to emulate. I won gold medals in all three events I participated in and bettered my individual timings. My most recent achievement was the 2020 Khelo India Games where I broke the Indian National Women’s record in the 100m breaststroke race
Who have been the most supportive figures in your journey?
Through all the ups and downs, it has been my parents who have been my pillars right through this journey. I recall during my early days of competitive swimming, I was not very good at butterfly, as I did not have the upper-body strength for it. Therefore, I decided not to practice it. However, my mother encouraged me and pushed me to face the challenge and overcome the fear, and soon I competed in the 50m Fly at the Junior-nationals. In addition, my major support is Reddy Sir. After my knee injury in 2016, I thought that I would not be able to pursue competitive swimming again. It’s only due to the constant encouragement and support from Reddy Sir that I was gradually able to get back again. I am very grateful for his training and guidance imparted during these years. I would also like to express my gratitude to my teachers of Dhirubhai Ambani International School who have constantly supported me throughout this journey.
What are the challenges that you have faced when pursuing swimming professionally? What can be done to solve it?
A big challenge was balancing academics and swimming professionally but by managing my time well and with the support of my family, I have been able to do both well. Moreover, in Mumbai, the commute to and from the pool, school and home was extremely long. My mother and I used to travel an hour and a half twice a day to get from the pool to school and back. Another challenge I faced was injuries. Proper guidance and support for young swimmers to train their bodies in and out of the pool is a prerequisite. It is very important that a lot of attention is given to doing the correct technique.
Who are the swimmers you have looked up to while growing up?
There have been several swimmers including Olympians Rebecca Soni, Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe. I used to emulate their technique and race strategies. Richa Mishra and Veer Dhaval Khade have also been huge inspirations. I still remember the photograph I took with Veer after his race at the Glenmark Time trials in 2015 - I was a beginner then. In 2018, I was competing at the Senior Nationals with all these legends. It was an honour.
How do you deal with the stress and pressure of big tournaments?
I believe in the hard work that I have put in in my training with Reddy Sir and my dryland coach and aim to give my best at the competition. I believe in myself and thus by focusing on improving my own timings, I feel I am able to handle the pressure of competing in big tournaments. I have learnt now that the satisfaction of personal growth is much more than any medal - so I try to focus on that.
How important of a role does mental health play to be able to compete at the highest level?
When competing at the highest levels, there is very little margin for error. While hard work and strenuous training will help to achieve the desired level, it is the power of mental strength which will ensure that one delivers the desired results when it matters. Hence, it plays a very crucial role, especially when you are coming back from any injury or a failure. While there are winners and losers in any sport, what matters is how one recovers from any setback and makes use of every opportunity.
How do you balance swimming with academics as well as any other hobby that you pursue?
It is not easy to balance the extensive schedule of swimming with academics and my other hobbies. My school heads, teachers and friends have been supportive and always ready to help me with my academic curriculum. My school sports teacher, Cawas Sir has played a very crucial role in helping me boost my self-confidence. I am grateful for all the support the school has provided me in my endeavor to pursue this competitive sport.