Abhinav Gopal, a Dual Degree student of Biotechnology who just finished his fifth year, chronicles his journey with the IIT Madras Aquatics team, aka the Madras Sharks. Known popularly as Tokas, Abhinav was awarded the medal for Best Outgoing Sportsman, IIT Madras, 2013-2014.
It was June 2009. I had just received my JEE counseling brochure. My eyes anxiously scanned it, looking for mentions of the phrase ‘swimming pool’. A few hours later, after a lot of research and after comparing the pool facilities, I had arrived at my final choice: IIT Madras. Along the way, I found out about its decorated and glorious past. Our sports culture, the best among the IITs, had led us to 17 General Championships (till that point). Further, we’d been crowned champions in the 2007 and 2008 Inter IIT water polo tournaments, and I was excited and raring to join the team. Given my swimming history and experience, I was confident about being selected.
Roll call sessions (extinct now!) had just started in hostel. To my great surprise, I had been allotted Jamuna, the most Schroeter-decorated hostel. I was just waiting for the sports fundae session so that I could put pseud in front of my hostel mates. During the session, I acted humble and described my achievements in sports. I had a discussion with one of the team’s legends, Sahaj (Gujju). He enquired about my lap timings and called me to the pool the next day to take my timing.
The next morning, when I jumped into the pool, it was after a gap of two years. My excitement and Gujju’s expectations nosedived after I barely finished 50 meters in full composure (my worst time ever). NSO selections were the next day, and my nervousness touched new heights. I gathered whatever confidence I had left and stood behind the starting block, looking at the other end. It was my only chance to prove myself. I finished first, and there was an immediate buzz about us having a 33 seconds swimmer this year. That was my first taste of recognition. I was called for institute practice, and I thought that the difficult half of the job was done. This is IIT, practice won’t be that rigorous and difficult, I told myself.
Institute Practice: Entering the depths of the pool, I dived into the realities of passion for sport. Four swimmers were faster than me, and almost everyone had more stamina. My estimate of my chances of making it to the team had dropped exponentially. After finishing our workout, I was asked to pass a waterpolo ball thrown at me. I couldn’t even hold it — God knows why, it slipped every single time I tried. On the other side, players were passing it around as if they had spider limbs. I had gotten my reality check. Then, my intros began and I was introduced to some legendary players. like Tattu, Chutta and Prabhat. Tattu — the most respected Inter IIT sportsman — was the biggest inspiration for us.
Only the next day, when Chutta (the captain) called me and woke me up, did I realize that he was serious about 6 am morning practice. When I reached, the entire team was practising and my punishment for coming late (!) was swimming an extra 200 metres. We needed to attend classes too, and we had just entered insti. Hey, give me some time to relax! I had to put BC (from BT) fight too. I couldn’t go this regularly. These thoughts constantly swam through my mind. But the fame, the team, the culture, the fun and most importantly, the passion, influenced me and I decided to work hard and continue. My timetable became fixed — 5:30 am go to the pool, come back at 7:50 am sharp and attend 8 am class. Finish classes by 5:30 pm, report at stadium by 5:40 pm, finish the overall workout by 8:30 and have dinner. Spend the next few hours ‘trying’ to mug and sleep.
What were the consequences? I became invisible to my wing mates. Shaastra volships became petty. All my energy was directed towards the single point agenda of getting into the team. I slowed down, I improved, I was punished, I practiced and I swam as much as I could. Finally, I made it into the team and the main seven.
My First Inter IIT
The train journey is the most memorable part. You get to know every other player in the team — you argue, debate, share, hate and in every condition, they always stay your team mates. Once we reached Kanpur, the first match was against the host, IIT Kanpur. The entire pool was surrounded by their supporters — shouting, sledging and hooting. We were leading 3-2. I got free and got a one-on-one chance against the goalkeeper. I took the shot. It went in! The next thing I remembered was gasping for breath with my team mates jumping on me. I had just scored my first Inter IIT goal in my first match! I did it on my own — I got free on my own, dodged my defender and scored! (Actually, not quite — it was Tattu who had held my defender so that I could get free.) Nevertheless, the wheel had started turning. We lost that match 5-4, thanks to the host referees. Their level of partial refereeing was openly criticized and various meetings were held. The next match was very important and we had to win by a big margin. We beat Kharagpur 13-6, with Tattu and Chutta completely dominating the game. We reached the semis.
Things were looking good. But as we returned from dinner, my stomach started aching. I could barely walk. Five out of our main seven players, including me, were down with diarrhea. We were soon on hospital beds — on saline, with no energy even to walk. Spurious sandwiches, affecting more than 400 students in IITK that day, had been the culprits. We had no idea how to play the semis against Bombay. We decided on something unheard-of in Inter IIT history (or even world sports’ history, I should think). We all decided to play. Tattu’s famous speech got us moving. Going against the doctor’s advice, we took out our saline drips and literally dragged ourselves to the pool. It was the first time I was audience to such a display of passion for sport. We played in style and we won, 7-5. We were out of our senses. We just saw the ball and the goal posts. Every single person in the pool was awestruck. The IITB coach said, “We had lost half our confidence when we saw you guys entering the pool”.
We were denied re-admission in the Institute hospital. We couldn’t play the finals (against Kanpur, no surprise) in our full strength but won silver. The experience made me realize that passion can take you beyond your limits. I vowed to myself that I would carry this legacy forward at any cost.