Adit Ravi talks to Sebastian Xavier, the fastest Indian swimmer for over a decade till his record was broken in 2009. He has 36 medals at the SAF Games and 66 Medals in national meets. He represented India at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. He works for the Southern Railways and has plans for a swimming academy in Kerala.
What separates an athlete from regular people?
Their mentality is totally different. If a person has played any sports events or undergone training, he/she is very punctual. They know the value of time. One more thing that an athlete gets due to training is obedience. The coach is a major factor in an athlete’s career and without a coach, an athlete can’t rise to his/her full potential. Discipline is yet another attribute of an athlete. If there are five athletes competing in a race, if one of them feels that bagging a medal is unlikely or even impossible, he/she will not back down citing that he/she has no chance. That is what sets an athlete apart from others.
What distinguishes an elite athlete from the other athletes?
There are certain people who know that they can’t reach the elite levels. They take up sports to secure their career. In the national level or university level, this is why many people compete. In India, what is the profile of a sportsperson? He/She is from the middle class or below. What do they want? They want a job. In the government or any other organization. They will be satisfied with that opportunity. So, the athletic achievement is a means to a stable career. Looking for an Olympic medal is not easy. Everybody will not get one. They are limited in number. Nowadays, getting a government job is very difficult, you may even have to pay large amounts to get them, or beat off a lot of competition in exams etc. But with a national medal, one straight away gets a government job. This is winning an Olympic medal for the athlete from a poor family.
What is the mental preparation that an athlete does every day? And how does an athlete prepare mentally before a race?
This is something that you figure out through experience. You will not know how to prepare yourself mentally at the first competition. From experience you will come to know what to do before the competition, what to do after or before the race or so on. Mind-setting is crucial… especially if it is a tough competition. In some places, you won’t have much competition and you can freely race and get a medal. But when you go to the top level meets, you have to concentrate, and be mentally prepared for the race. The event you are going to do, the timing that you are targeting etc. should be in your mind.
My way was to bring the race into my mind. I would imagine how I would do that race. I would imagine going to the reporting arena, sitting there, waiting for my chance, going to the pool, climbing the starting block, hearing the whistle and finishing. I’ll be the first. This visualization helped deciding how many breaths you had to take. My events were 50 and 100m. For the 50m, I would imagine where I would breathe, how I’d will start, how I’d will finish and so on. Only when all this comes together can one win.
How much of an athlete’s success is due to innate ability and how much is it due to efforts?
Individual events are separate from team events. All cannot be individual sportspersons and neither can everyone be team sportspersons. You also have to choose which field you can excel in. Sadly, in India, there is no choice! Where is the choice? How I came to the sports field was because of water. I had to learn swimming and so I ended up in swimming. Now it’s selective. Studies are there to identify which sport is suitable for you, which muscle you can use best. Technology is improved a lot. I would definitely say that at least 50% of an athlete’s success is due to inherent talent. Possibly even more than 50%. Work is secondary, one must first choose a suitable field!
How is the transition for an elite athlete after retirement like?
It is quite easy if you get a job in the same area (sports). 90% sports people are working in a non-sports area after retirement. Only 10% get sports-related work. But they get used to it. When an athlete is competing, they will typically also have a job, say in the railways or some such organization. They would be doing that work along with their events and competitions. So once they retire the transition is smooth.
What about your marriage and your children? Do you want/expect them to become swimmers too?
I’m very happy. In my time, I was struggling without any support or anything. I want to put my children in sports but I don’t want to force them. Nowadays, everyone cannot be an engineer or a doctor. Sports is a valid career option as it gives you opportunities enough to get a stable career as a government staff, employee. This awareness is not there. Parents are unaware that these opportunities exist in sports. A slight improvement is happening but that awareness should come soon.