Aparnna Suresh talks to Sharath Gayakwad, a twenty four year old Paralympic swimmer who represented India at the London Olympics in 2012. Having won over 30 international and 40 national swimming medals, going on to bag a further 6 medals at the 2014 Asian Games, Sharath holds the title for the most number of medals by an Indian at any multi-discipline event. He was awarded the Arjuna Award in August 2015. Furthermore, his start-up, ‘Gamatics’ functions as a platform to integrate different aspects of swimming – equipment, nutrition and expert advice.
Congratulations on your Arjuna Award! How does it feel? Do you think it’s a sign of better things to come for Para-athletes in India?
Thank you! It feels great to be noticed and appreciated. Being recognized amongst the top athletes in the country serves as huge motivation. The government and private sector are showing interest in supporting para-sports but unfortunately the facilities are still poor. Paralympics are held in 15 disciplines, the one requisite award to para-athletes every year feels underwhelming.
Speaking of Paralympics, Rio 2016 is a year away. How are you feeling? Where are you training?
I had an injury recently. So, I’m undergoing rehabilitation at Sri Ramachandra Medical Centre. Right now, the focus is to qualify for the games. I’m 0.5 second away from the qualification mark. So, fingers crossed.
When did you decide to pursue a career in swimming? What are the challenges Indian athletes face when they decide to go professional?
When was around 15, in 9th or 10th grade – the typical age when people around you start asking you what you want to be. I loved swimming and I knew I wanted to swim. My parents were a little apprehensive. We were a typical middle class family where there was a lot of emphasis on education. My parents insisted that I complete my education. Lack of disabled friendly facilities when I started competing was also a challenge.
You had mentioned in your speech that swimming gave you confidence. How did it help you with your life outside of the pool?
In the initial stages, I found it very hard to do even the daily tasks like putting my clothes on, writing notes or using a scale. It was very hard. I was doing a lot of running and football even before I started swimming. Sports gave me the confidence to believe that I could actually do something. When I began playing really well, it made me realise that I was equal to everyone else. On a related note, I actually started swimming because my school made swimming classes compulsory. At the time, I really wanted to be excused from them.
Who were your role models growing up?
Before I started swimming, it was Sachin Tendulkar, I absolutely love the way he plays cricket; and once I began swimming, Ian Thorpe, the Australian Olympian at the time caught my eye. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to meet Rahul Dravid whom I’ve always admired. He’s a wonderful person. I’d met him a couple of times casually and one random day, he says, “Can I come watch you swim tomorrow?” I was very excited about the interest from someone who has achieved so much in his career. Being a swimmer, I’ll definitely try to give something back to swimming after I retire. But him being a cricketer and supporting all sports is simply amazing. I wish everybody would do that.
Is competing as a para-athlete any different from competing as a normal person? Do you have any pa
Each person’s disability is different and hence the program they would have to go through naturally different. Suppose I have 10 able bodied kids, I can teach them using the same program but when it comes to para sports, it takes both the coaches and the player a lot of hard work and time to reach the same level. Hats off to the coaches who have coached so many para-athletes to go on to national and international competitions.
For me, it took a long time to learn how to maintain equilibrium. It all depends on the disabilities – with some it’s easier to do breaststroke and others butterfly. Personally, my favourite is breaststroke in which I’m the Asian record holder. But I also like swimming freestyle and butterfly. I’m doing part time coaching right now and I’m working with three para swimmers right now. It’s about equality for me – it doesn’t matter whether the kid is able bodied or para.
Where do you peg the current scenario in Indian swimming?
Indian swimming – from what I’ve seen since I started – we’ve achieved a lot. We’ve done some tremendous hard work. Going into the future, the scenario looks very strong. But when it comes to para sports, people are going backwards because of the lack of support. I wish the support keeps coming and we have more para swimmers and athletes in our country.
How do you unwind?
I watch TV – I love comedy shows and movies. I also used to stay up late and spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter, but these days I tend to sleep early.
What inspired you to startup? What are your plans for the future?
I’m a part time coach and one of kids I coach, Uttkarsh, wanted to take up competitive swimming seriously. His parents wanted to know how the analytics part works because there is no record of data – how do you map the performance of the kid? All the coaches do it manually. We have our books and we write down everything and do a lot of calculations. So, we came up with the idea to get everything related to sports under one platform – whether it’s the analytics, the nutrition, coaching or high-end equipments. I’m very thankful to them for including me in the startup and they’ve been doing an amazing job. Right now, we’ve picked up really well. I’m hoping to see a lot of response in the future and I’d like us to get to a place where we’re a brand of our own supporting athletes and of course the ultimate goal is the olympic and paralympic medals. We’re going to do everything possible to achieve that. Actually, we still have a lot of positions open. Actually, if you can include this – I would request anyone who is interested to send in their applications to [email protected] and go through our website gamatics.in. We need all the support we can get to achieve our goals.
Any memories of IIT Madras?
Actually, I was here three years ago for the para-national championships. We were given accommodation and food at IIT Madras. The volunteers and the faculty made us feel welcome. The hospitality was excellent and they made sure the accommodation was disabled-friendly. The food here is always great – on a second thought, maybe they arranged that specially for the competition!