Indian swimmers will make history if they reach semi-final in Tokyo : Olympian Sebastian Xavier
For the first time, three Indian swimmers will be participating in the Olympics. Malayalee swimmer Sajan Prakash will compete in 200m butterfly and Srihari Nataraj and Maana Patel will compete in the 100m Backstroke. Sajan and Srihari also managed the incredible feat of achieving 'Olympic' A Cut during the qualifiers, raising the odds for a maiden Olympic medal in swimming.
To understand swimming at the Olympics, you need the presence and mind of a swimmer who had tested the limits in the grandest stages of them all. Fortunately, we were quick to identify the right person to talk to. It was Sebastian Xavier.
The notable figure of Indian swimming, the former coach and a true athlete of the 80s and 90s, Sebastian Xavier recently celebrated his 25th year of participating in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
In an illustrious career spanning years, he has won a total of 75 gold medals at the national level and had 40 top draw finishes at the international level. He also took part in two Asian Games and several more South Asian (SAF) Games. He also held the national record for 11 years and was the fastest swimmer in India for more than a decade.
In a brief interview to mathrubhumi.com, he discussed various topics associated with swimming and the future of the event in the country.
So far in Olympics, we haven't won a medal in swimming. What are the odds of India winning a medal in Tokyo?
Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj are great talents. It will be a great achievement for India if they can make it to the semifinal. My dream is about them reaching the final, and if they can do it, then the history of the country could be rewritten. Both of them have broken the national record, bettered it, and it is a very impressive feat to achieve. I can't even imagine breaking the 53.77 sec record set by Srihari and the 1:56:38 sec set by Sajan. You should also realize that my national record stood for many years before it was eventually broken. I hope they do well.
Can you share your opinion on the athletes representing the country in swimming?
Sajan is a very dedicated and hard-working athlete. Very calm and quiet by nature. When I was participating in the Olympics, he was only 3 years old. I met him during my stint as a coach for the Indian Railway. Even though I never coached him personally, he was part of the Indian railway team, I coached. I believe his mother, a former athlete, is the driving force behind his success. Srihari Natraj on the other hand is trained by Nihad Amen, a former Olympian, and a Dronacharya awardee. He had his training in Bangalore, the hotbed for professional swimmers. Srihari is young and very promising, and his record speaks for itself. Maana Patel is also a very talented athlete, and it's very interesting to see how they perform at that level.
What are the areas that we lack in terms of development and nurturing of talent?
Infrastructure is very poor. The facilities aren't available in Kerala for the athletes considering the standard of the system available outside. Only Karnataka and Maharashtra have the facilities for training professional swimmers. In the case of scouting networks, we don't have any viable options in Kerala for talents to emerge. The possibility is very slim for young swimmers considering the lack of proper conditions for training in Kerala.
If that is the case, what is the quality of coaches we have in the country. Is it better or is it an area that we need to work upon?
In swimming, it's very bad. Compared to the international stage, it is very poor in Kerala as well as in the country. That's why nowadays they are fetching foreign coaches for training. 25 years ago, if I had the same guidance from a foreign coach, I could have won the gold medal. The govt support wasn't there back in the day. Nowadays, the government provides enough support to these athletes. Even the Kerala government is offering a lot of support. Still, we lag behind 25 years in terms of facilities that exist in many foreign countries. It should change.
What is a proposed plan from your viewpoint that can help in the development of an organized training system in Kerala?
I have submitted a proposal to the Kerala govt requesting to lease lands in each district to set up sports centers. I, guarantee that I could develop these facilities. The state should also hand over the unused land available for the development of sporting centers and facilities. People interested in sports, former athletes, with an ambition to nurture talents should be given a chance. It should never be handed over to those who see the business side of it. The state also has its limitation on handling things on its own. Therefore, the private parties should be the ones to tackle this. However, if facilities like "Pay & Play", which I proposed, are initiated in each district, then a robust system for sports activities can be developed in Kerala. Currently, the plan is in the sports ministry after it was submitted to Chief Minister through an MLA from Kottayam.
Can Covid-19 create a psychological effect on the athletes competing in Tokyo?
I don't think so. The Olympians will showcase their potential no matter what. Once you reach an Olympic village, your attitude and aspirations completely change. We can feel free around the world-class athletes that you meet in the village. Talking to them and spending time with them in the village is a great experience. It was my personal experience as well. That feeling cannot be expressed through words. Once you are there, you meet other Olympians who we admire, and to speak to them is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Your experience and feeling of being a part of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?
I was the first Malayalee Olympian in the event of swimming. Brought up in a humble background at Kuttanad, I learned to swim in a river. I never saw a swimming pool until the days when I first started attending competitions. For me, everything changed after getting qualified for Olympics. I couldn't express that feeling. I was able to meet many world-renowned athletes at the Olympic village. Looking back at it, I feel so proud of it.