How Sharath Gayakwad overcame physical disability to become India's most successful athlete
“Sport is about patience! Challenges and disabilities are a part and parcel of one’s life. The one who has a single minded devotion to his/her goal always succeeds,” these words encompass the daily struggles and achievements of Indian para-swimmer Sharath Gayakwad. The 24-year old created in 2014, when he surpassed P T Usha’s most medals by an Indian in a multiple-sport event record.
Sharath won six medals at the 2014 Para Asian Games defeating Usha’s record of five, set at the 1982 edition. However, the former’s feat is even more remarkable, as he used only one swimming hand, owing to a birth deformity.
He said, “When I was nine years old, the Little Flower school in Bengaluru made swimming compulsory for everyone. Of course I had a problem, so they asked me to take things slowly. So I started paddling and then eventually learned how to swim properly. My school also let me practice so I slowly go better and better.”
Baby steps towards competitive swimming
In 2002, Sharath came to know about the existence of competitive para-swimming in India. He began training for the 2003 National Championships. He added, “During my school days, I raced with mostly able-bodied swimmers, and I did well, so I thought why not train for it. By now I had realised swimming was not just for fitness, but it was also about success for me.”
At his very first attempt at the National Championship, Gaykwad won four medals, gold in the 50 m and 100 m breastroke, 100 m freestyle and 200m medley. His prolific performance caught the eye of national coaches, who selected him to participate in the Youth Pacific Games. He was the youngest Indian representative at the event, aged just 12.
He added, “I was selected to represent India in several youth competition, before making my senior debut in 2006. There I swam with the likes of stalwarts Prasanta Karmakar, also an Asian Games medallist in 2010”
After regularly participating with the senior team, Gayakwad was included in the 2010 Asian Para Games. He said, “Heading into this particular event I didn’t have any strategy in mind, apart from giving my 100 %, I never attended an event of that magnitude, so I thought let’s give it my 100 %.”
Defying the 100m breaststroke ranking narrative, he clocked a bronze medal winning time of 20.90 seconds. He added, “The guy on the lane beside me won the event, so I saw him reach first, before all of us. I wasn’t sure what my timing was, but I looked up and saw I won the bronze. It was a perfect race for me, and everything well into place. More than the bronze medal, I was happy about qualifying for the London Paralympics.”
In 2011, he would go onto win two medals (one silver, two bronze medals) at the International Deutsche Swimming Championships in Berlin. He also held the 50m and 100m Asian breaststroke record, during the time.
Two major international titles would see Sharath reach a career 13th in the world rankings. Despite the positive results, he would go onto face serious financial pressure. He said, “Each year, and I’m going to only talk about the domestic years, it costs Rs 1.5 – 1.8 lakhs. Leave alone the international tournament, all of us who would go to participate in these tournaments paid out of our pockets. My family was financially stretched, because of my swimming career.”
Infrastructural and financial problems
Sharath also faced his share of infrastructural problems, he added, “If you go to any other country, you have flattened bases, along with special platforms for the competitors. This is a must, because at every big event it is the norm. But, during that time there was nothing. They didn’t differently abled bathrooms either.”
“My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me, and I’m grateful for it. I was lucky to find sponsors like Gosports Foundation, Jain University who helped me out. However, the some doesn’t apply for all Para sports in India. There is infrastructure, but the way it is being governed is not right. We should concentrate tapping the young talent. We have to make it a culture to create a system, right now administratively, it is being governed by Sports Authority of India.”
In 2012, he was selected by Gold standard Coach Mel Tandtrum for Paralympic training. Under her guidance, Sharath would go onto register personal best timings in all four categories, including a 9th placed finish in the 50m breast stroke event.
A poor 2013 calendar year, saw him out with a recurrent shoulder injury. This translated itself onto his game, as Sharath failed at the 2014 Para-Commonwealth Games. He said, “My form was very poor, and my shoulder injury kept me out for long patches. In fact, I had even announced my post Asian Games retirement. I decided to put all the pain aside and give it my 100 % in the major tournament I would play.”
Don’t retire, concentrate on swimming: Rahul Dravid to Sharath
Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid coaxed him against his retirement decision. Sharath said, “He told me to concentrate on the Asian Games. We kept in touch through email as well, he taught me how to be a better sportsperson.”
And boy did Sharath take Dravid’s advice seriously! He would go onto win six medals in Incheon, eclispsing P T Usha’s 36-year old record. This made him the most successful Indian athlete at an international multi-sport event. Sharath won silver in the 200m medley, bronze in Men’s 100m Butterfly, bronze in Men’s 100m Breaststroke, bronze in Men’s 100m backstroke and another bronze in the 50m freestyle. His sixth medal came in 4x100 Medley relay event.
He said, “ I actually had no clue about this feat, I won by fifth medal and some journalist tweeted that I was on the verge of breaking P T Usha’s record. It felt very good when I did break, so many people congratulated me, and I also decided not to immediately retire.”
Post his victory, Sharath has co-founded Gamatics.in, which aims to change the infrastructural and financial issues that plague para-sports in India. He said, “Right now I am concentrating on the website, which is looking to develop swimming and para-sports in India. I am also moving into coaching, where I am assisting John Christopher in the Puja Aquactics Centre in Bengaluru. So I have not retired yet, but I’m not forcing the issue either.”
The Bengaluru-based swimmer has also said Rio Paralympics are not in his immediate plans. He added, “I’m looking to develop the sport in India, plus I have a major injury and it’s recurring. I am yet to qualify for the event, but I won’t be swimming until I recover. So let’s see how it goes.”
Sharath’s growth trajectory in swimming gives inspiration to all budding athletes in the country. Not only did he defy physical disability, but the ace swimmer also fought his way through infrastructural and societal problems, en-route to becoming India’s most successful sportsperson.