With an eye on Olympic qualification, Nethra Kumanan knew that the significance of the Musannah Open Championships couldn't be undermined. She had her head up constantly, scouring the ocean surface for shifts and keeping an eye on the chasing pack.
Leaving no stone unturned in her pursuit of an Olympic quota, Nethra rose above the waters to jump out to an early lead that she never relinquished. She steamed ahead of countrymate Ramya Saravanan and secured a historic Tokyo Olympics quota in the Laser Radial class with a race to spare.
"The entire journey has been an amazing one. I have finally achieved something that I had been trying to do for so long. It is quite a relief to me now. And to be able to have done it with my friends (KC Ganapathy, Varun Thakkar, and Vishnu Saravanan) makes it all the more exciting," Nethra Kumanan told Sportskeeda.
Nethra broke barriers in sailing by becoming the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics. She made yet more history after becoming the first Indian sailor to earn a direct quota through an Olympic qualifier. In previous editions, all Indian sailors have qualified through nominations for quota spots that did not fill up through qualifiers.
Bouncing back after Rio disappointment
A year after winning bronze at the ASAF Youth Sailing Cup, Nethra Kumanan was viewed as a potential gold medalist heading into the Rio Olympic qualifiers. However, a seventh-place finish at the Abu Dhabi Asian Championships was a humbling end to her Olympic qualifying campaign. The 2016 Rio qualifier still niggles at the back of her mind as a lost opportunity.
"In the beginning to be honest, I didn't cope with it very well. Some days are harder than others, but we find something or someone to help us push through it and then go on with it. If I had ever decided to have given up, I would obviously not be here today. I think the experience has helped me change things around me, see what I was missing and bridge the gaps. It is slowly paying off," she said.
Nethra has a natural skill in the boat that sets her apart from the rest of the fleet and she barely seems to break a sweat in the heat of competition. It is her renowned air of calm self-possession that stands out from all the rest.
She possesses an immeasurable amount of raw talent, and her parents have been there to push her along the way. Their support gave her the conviction that she can get whatever she sets her eyes on.
"They were the ones who pushed me to stay with it (her goal towards becoming a sailor) because it did take a lot of time. It gets tough during times when I stay away from them. They have been supportive of everything," she added.
The many firsts of Nethra Kumanan's career
Nethra made a career breakthrough in 2014 when she bagged her first international medal with a third-place finish at the India International Regatta. However, she couldn't go on to replicate that success at the Asian Games in Incheon.
A year following her Rio heartbreak, Nethra finished in 39th place at the Under-21 World Championships. With a sixth-place finish at the 2018 Asian Sailing Championships, her confidence was now flourishing as she began to establish herself on the bigger stage. At 22, Nethra reached a new milestone in her career, fetching India its first-ever sailing medal at the World Cup.
She is now eager to gather some valuable experience at the Tokyo Olympics which will hold key to her performance at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
"We've already entered into the next Olympic cycle (2024 Paris Olympics). The time is shorter because the Tokyo Olympics were pushed back one year. The aim is now to get back into training immediately after this. The plan is to use Tokyo as an experience-building event so that I'm good enough for the next edition. I'll have that experience to back me up. The problem is that we have one year left to prepare for the next Olympics. It's difficult, but we will try the best we can," she stated.
From displaying her footwork in Bharatnatyam dance to reveling in the sea waves, Nethra has seen stellar growth in her career with the sky now being the limit for this trailblazer.