Don’t know why swimming is being targetted: Coach Nihar Ameen on Karnataka shutting down pools

Dronacharya awardee Nihar Ameen feels that swimming is being unfairly targetted especially when most contact-sports like cricket and football are being allowed to run.

With Tokyo Olympics only a few months away, the swimming hopefuls, their coaches and other professional swimmers find themselves in hot water again as the Karnataka government on April 2 issued an order to shut down swimming pools across the state till April 20 in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.

With the new order to keep the pools closed, over 1000 competitive swimmers in the state will be put out of practice. In protest against the move, more than 600 people including coaches, members from affiliated clubs, parents and swimmers gathered at Shri Kanteerava Stadium on Monday to appeal to the Karnataka government in Bengaluru to re-open pools.

The spoke to coach Nihar Ameen, who is training India’s Olympic hopefuls. He emphasised that swimming is one of the safest sports to pursue during the pandemic as the virus does not spread through water, particularly chlorinated water.

The first Dronacharya awardee in swimming feels that the sport is being unfairly targetted, especially when most contact-sports like cricket and football are allowed to be played. While athletes in most disciplines have started taking part in international/national competitions or are preparing for comebacks, swimming as a sport has felt the blow harder than others, he said.

No Indian has ever made the ‘A’ qualification standard, which offers a confirmed berth for the Olympics. Six Indians have, however, achieved the second-level Olympic qualifying mark or the B standard, which only keeps them in the reckoning in case the total quota of swimmers is not reached by the end of the qualification period.

The swimmers to have attained the B qualification mark for Tokyo Olympics are Srihari Natraj (100m backstroke – 54.69), Kushagra Rawat (400m freestyle 3:52.75, 800m freestyle, 8:07.99, 1500m freestyle, 15:25.22), Sajan Prakash (200m butterfly, 1:58.45), Advait Page (800m freestyle, 8:00.76), Aryan Makhija (800m freestyle, 8:07.80), Virdhawal Khade (50m freestyle, 22.44s). Their goal of achieving the A mark keeps getting distant as swimming facilities stay inaccessible.

It’s been one year of the pandemic. How did the lockdown halt the progress of the sport in India?

The lockdown was brutal and we have come a full circle now that they have shut the pools again. If you do not chlorinate the pool and leave it just like that, you are bound to get water diseases like cholera, dengue, malaria etc. So it was a huge challenge – we had to maintain our pools which cost us a lot of money, we had to pay our staff which cost us a lot of money. And there was no money coming in.

And quite frankly, this happens again and it is literally the end of the road for us. We have not made up for the losses of 2020. We just got started and were going to pay our staff as well. The swimmers were just coming back and now this has happened again.

I just feel that swimming is being unfairly targetted. The authorities must understand that chlorinated pools will not breed coronavirus. If you’re allowing other sports to be open, swimming should also be open. Athletes who are training should be allowed to train. The general public is a different issue. I am not talking about that or pushing for the public to be in water. But athletes who are in training, who are highly disciplined just like any other sportsperson, should not be victimised. Swimming is the safest of all sports, that’s all I am saying.

Athletes may be able to resort to other forms of training/exercise when gyms/training centres are shut. But swimming is perhaps one sport that can’t have an alternative. How did you keep the morale of your players up? Do you have a sports psychologist to help the players mentally?

Yes, we do. We have had several sessions with them during the lack of training to keep them motivated. We held regular group sessions, motivational sessions with psychologists and fitness sessions (outside water), which could only help to that extent.

It all started fading away after a few months. A lot of athletes had started losing hope. Like one of my Olympic qualifiers, Virdhawal Khade, who was the number one swimmer in the country, lost shape, lost hope and he quit the sport. Of all the new swimmers, he was the closest to A qualification for Tokyo (Olympics) and he quit because he couldn’t comeback. He couldn’t make it. So that’s probably one of the greatest losses we have ever had. He is one of the biggest casualities of this pandemic.

Do you think there is enough emphasis on swimming in India, considering it has a number of medals on offer at the Olympics? What needs to be done to make Indian swimming competitive at the international level?

That’s a big question. A lot of work is being done by the Swimming Federation now to improve the situation – by calling down foreign experts, getting state-of-the-art equipment to India. A lot of work is being done but it will take us time to catch up. But we need more swimmers, we need more pools and we definitely don’t need these kinds of disruptions.

It’s heartbreaking to see every contact sport being played which are literally breeding the coronavirus. There are dozens of tennis players, dozens of football players, cricketers and coaches who have tested positive because these are all contact sports. Swimming is the safest sport because of the chlorine. You cannot catch the virus in water which is chlorinated water and that has been substantiated and proved by the WHO, in writing. And still, I don’t know who is targetting our sport and why they are doing it!

What is the morale of the Olympic hopefuls right now?

Right now, most of them are out of the country at this point except Srihari (Nataraj), who I am supposed to be travelling with in a few days time for the Uzbekistan tournament, which is an Olympic qualifying tournament. We are hopeful that he will be doing well.

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