Nisha Millet became the first Indian woman swimmer to clock the Olympics ‘B’ qualifying mark for the Sydney Olympics 2000. Today, she is excited that Sajan Prakash, who is heading for next week’s Tokyo Olympics, is the first Indian male swimmer to have made the ‘A’ cut in 200m butterfly.
Once the leading woman swimmer in the country with 14 gold medals from the 1999 National Games, Nisha Millet made it to the 200m freestyle at the Sydney Games as an 18-year-old. However, a back surgery sustained in 2002 forced her to quit swimming and take up coaching.
But the injury didn't dampen the swimmer's love for the sport. She is excited to see two Indian male swimmers – Prakash and Srihari Nataraj (100m backstroke) – qualify for the Olympics with the ‘A’ cut. She is, however, disappointed that Indian women have not even made the ‘B’ qualifying time for the Olympics. Maana Patel made it to the 100m backstroke through the Universality Quota.
Nisha Millet is currently a coach for beginners and junior swimmers in Bengaluru. The swimmer, who also participated in the 1998 Asian Games, doubles up as a sports counselor at the Elevate Performance Lab that she co-founded. Fellow swimmer Srinand Srinivas is a sports doctor while former cricketer AK Abhinav is a sports fitness expert at the lab. The three combine to provide expert advice to amateur athletes to overcome the odds and perform better.
In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, the 39-year-old from Bengaluru spoke about the highs and lows of Indian swimming. Nisha Millet was so excited about the Indians qualifying that she planned to go to Tokyo with her seven-year-old twins to watch Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj swim at the Olympics. But due to Covid restrictions, she will be confined to following the Games on television.
Excerpts from Nisha Millet interview:
Q. How do you look at the three Indian swimmers who have qualified for the Tokyo Games?
A. I am very excited with just a few days to go for the Olympics. I have been in touch with Sajan Prakash and Srihari Nataraj, and both are sounding very calm and composed. Sajan said that if he can reduce a little more than half-a-second, he has a chance of making it to the semifinals. There is a lot to improve on. If he trains well and rests well, he should be able to make it. He said that he swam through a shoulder pain in Rome and had an amazing qualifying time.
Should Sajan make it to the semifinals, it can be a game changer for Indian swimming.
Srihari is only 20 and a fabulous swimmer for his age. He is smart and mature beyond his age. He keeps asking questions as to how to stay mentally focused. He is very calm and down to earth. Whatever he does at the Olympics, we know for sure that four years down the line, he will be a big name to watch out for.
Both Sajan and Srihari are mentally tough, and in great shape physically. I have full faith in these two and they have a good future beyond the Tokyo Olympics. These boys are at another level. India had the longest lockdown in the entire pandemic amongst the swimming countries. Everyone else opened up. In India, these kids could not train for nine months. Luckily Sajan was training in Dubai. To go from there to qualifying for the Olympics is phenomenal. It is great to see swimming coming a long way.
Q. What about Maana Patel and her entry into the 100m backstroke?
A. Without sounding harsh on her, the sad part about Indian women's swimming is that nobody, apart from me in 2000 and Shikha Tandon in 2004 have done even the ‘B’ qualifying time. It has been 17 years and no girl has made the ‘B’ cut. My concern is that when you have amazing facilities, the same coaches as the boys (Dronacharya awardees Nihar Ameen and S Pradeep Kumar), the same specialists, masseurs, sports psychologists, biomechanics, sports science, why are they not perfoming? That is a big worry.
Q. Why are the girls not performing?
A. Either they are giving up in favor of a professional career, thinking there is no future in swimming, or there is no talent spotting. If you can spot talent in a guy, you can spot a girl too. That is why I decided to do coaching at the grassroots level. You have good enough coaches in Pradeep sir and Nihar sir. With proper technique from the beginning, when they get to a competitive level, there will be a huge difference. In India, the teaching in swimming is very rudimentary.
What is needed is more qualified swim teachers. I feel they are not catching these swimmers young, boys and girls, more so girls, and spotting talent in them.
Many coaches can tell just by looking at the youngsters by the feel of the water. You may not find them winning medals straightaway but with their strokes, you realize they have the feel for the water. That is when they need to tell their parents to let their kids pursue swimming.
Q. What is the reality in India? Have more children been taking up swimming seriously?
A. In India, swimming is a seasonal sport. You have summer camps, when everyone is in the pool. They come to the pool again the next summer, by which time the skills are forgotten. As a coach for 17 years, I tell parents that swimming is the safest sport, not really getting injured, not really expensive and can be done throughout the year.
Only if you swim throughout the year will you go to the next level. Maybe with that level, we can have more girls. We need the girls to step up. I am quite worried.
Q. Can swimming really be a career option?
A. A lot has changed for the better since my days. You have so much funding, more infrastructure, so much competition and so many sports schemes like the Khelo India, TOPS, etc. You can’t have any excuse, really. It is up to the individual swimmers.
With more swimmer education, with more athlete education, you can convince them that one can earn through swimming. Look at Sajan and Srihari, they have managers who manage their careers and get them funding. You have JSW, Go Sports Foundation and OGQ, among others, funding the athletes in the country.
Q. How worrying is the fact that since Shikha Tandon went to the Asian Games in 2006, no Indian woman has qualified for the Asiad? There are no Commonwealth Games medals either...
A. It is very worrying. There is something seriously wrong with our system. You need to push the girls to continue with swimming. There are so many reasons why we should worry. As much as we celebrate the boys and their rise in swimming, we want the girls to pick up equally.
Maana Patel has been around for a good 10 years and she is not even making the ‘B’ qualification time for the Olympics. We need to think about swimming.
Swimming has the highest number of medals at the Olympics. If you look at it, the chances of winning medals for a country is maximum in swimming. You need to invest in top athletes, start at the junior national level and go up.
Q. What did participating in the 2000 Olympics mean to you?
As an 18-year-old at the Olympics, I was overwhelmed. I did not perform as well as I could have. I thought I would be there at the next Olympics but could not make it because of the back surgery. I tell the youngsters to enjoy every minute of it at the Olympics because you never know what would happen before the next Olympics.
In those days, we had no sports psychologist. The Olympics was a bit too much for me. Anjali (Vedpathak-Bhagwat, shooter) used to help me calm me down. Shooters do a lot of meditation. As I was jumping around and was hyper, Anjali used to calm me down. I also had my best friend Aparna Popat in the Sydney Games. It was an amazing experience. We went to watch Pullela Gopichand’s match. He was so upset that he lost. We watched the Indian hockey team. You learn a lot. Even a fraction of a point, even a millisecond comes in the way of winning a bronze and you end up finishing fourth or fifth.
Q. What memories do you carry from that Games?
A. Karnam Malleswari was just opposite my room in the same cottage at the Games Village. Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. I was so excited to wear the saree and blazer for the opening ceremony, though not everyone got to march. I was crying in joy.
Every Olympics, I watch the opening ceremony. The torch ceremony gets me emotional. I was jumping around in the swimming pool arena when Ian Thorpe won and broke a record, while my camera fell and broke. I, though, had amazing photos taken. Seeing Md Ali in the dining hall, and seeing the great pole vaulter Sergey Bubka, those were unbelievable moments. It is more like a feeling, walking around the Olympic Village. I was speechless when I came face-to-face with our own captain Leander Paes. He knew everything about everyone and he said to me, ‘Hi Nisha, congratulations on qualifying for the 200m.’
For a young athlete like me, to be known by name, it was amazing. At the Games Village, they treat everyone as an Olympian. I may not have qualified for the finals but that doesn’t matter.
It is a special feeling. There is a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifices that go into it. When you actually get there, it is amazing. You cannot put it into words, to be part of the community. In those days, there was no money. Swimming was an amateur sport. For us, the greatest joy was in representing the country, carrying the tricolour, standing up on the blocks and hearing the name being called out, ‘Nisha Millet, Lane 4’.
That’s the greatest feeling, something you will always be thankful to have experienced. Olympics is so special that after I started learning to swim in 1991, I watched the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in which Matt Biondi of the USA won relay gold medals. Watching him swim butterfly, he looked like a dolphin, so smooth. I decided then that I will take up swimming.
Q. The coach who trained you then, S Pradeep Kumar, is coaching Sajan Prakash. That must be exciting…
A. I know Sajan better because the coach who guided me in my career, Pradeep Kumar, is coaching him. It was a very emotional moment while congratulating Pradeep sir after Sajan met the ‘A’ qualifying mark. I was the first to make the ‘B’ qualification under him. Sajan is the first to do the ‘A’ qualifying time. Now, Sajan is one level higher. I told him [Pradeep Kumar] ‘You are a five-time Olympian, having coached five swimmers to the Olympics (Nisha Millet in 2000, Rehan Poncha in 2008, Gagan Ullalmath in 2012, Sajan Prakash in 2016 & 2020 and Shivani Kataria in 2016). Pradeep sir will be in his fourth Olympics as a coach from 2008 onwards.
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