Lack of appetite made Maana Patel take to swimming before she turned 10. Now, having booked her ticket for the Tokyo Olympics through the Universality Quota, it is the appetite of a different kind that keeps the 21-year-old India’s fastest woman backstroker from Ahmedabad motivated. Patel clocked her best time of one minute, 03.77 seconds to clinch gold in the Belgrade Trophy in Serbia last month. Though this was below the ‘B’ cut, or the Olympic Selection Time, Patel made it to the Olympics, her first ever, through the Universality Quota in female gender as no other woman swimmer from India has met the OST or Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT or the ‘A’ cut). Leaving that aside, Patel is just happy to have realised her dream of participating in the Olympics.
Speaking to News18.com soon after her return from the Europe meets that included participating in Rome also, where her male compatriots Sajan Prakash (200m butterfly) and Srihari Nataraj (100m backstroke) met the OQT for the Tokyo Games, Patel said: “I am very happy to be participating in the Olympics. Although it is not the ‘A’ cut, I am very grateful. I know I have worked hard to get 1:03.77s. It was well planned as to how I was going to swim my race and how it was going to be. I am very happy that the race turned out as per the expectations. For me, this is a very positive and very uplifting moment. This is just the beginning and there is a long way to go. I am very happy and pretty sure that in the future, I will be clocking ‘B’ cuts and hopefully ‘A’ cuts. I am looking forward to that."
Even though Patel did 1:03.77s in Belgrade on the Sunday of the competition (June 20), it was not until June 22 that she received the news about booking her berth for Tokyo. She describes the moments of uncertainty from that race and until receiving confirmation of her entry to the Olympics.
“What I was going through was ‘if I had made the ‘A’ cut, I would not have been feeling like this’. There was a thought of uncertainty. I was happy to get my best timing after the injury and I had a good night’s sleep because I had clocked my best timing and was not thinking about what was going to happen. We started training for the race in Italy (Sette Colli Trophy) on Monday (June 21) morning. On Tuesday morning, when my phone got connected to WiFi at the hotel - actually I don’t like having data on my phone when I am racing - all the congratulatory messages started coming in and I was wondering why. I saw the Swimming Federation of India press release and that’s when I was nominated for the Olympics under the Universality Quota. That was good news," Patel said.
The Belgrade timing for Patel was well planned out with her coach, Nihar Ameen. Patel said that Tokyo qualification was always at the back of her mind when she went to Belgrade and Rome.
“I always believe in taking baby steps but at the back of my mind, Tokyo was always at the back of mind. It was my goal. After we reached Belgrade (last month) and before my race, Nihar sir sat down and spoke to all of us regarding our individual goals. Each one had different goals. Srihari and Sajan were aiming for ‘A’ cut. Kenisha (Gupta, freestyle) and I were competing for the highest FINA points for the Universality timings. I knew what time I had to clock to get the highest FINA points. I had it planned out all in my head. Even in training, I was very mindful of the flips and all I had to do I remember. Before my race I was standing on the (starting) blocks, and before jumping in, I looked at the boards where the timings are displayed. I looked at my lane number and I just imagined my time to be 1:03.50s or lower. I imagined my timing before jumping for the race. I was very confident about it."
It has been Patel’s confidence that has taken her this far. And she is only aiming big, though it will take time because of the training facilities and everything surrounding it that are available in India for elite swimmers.
Patel knows what she has to do from now till her event in Tokyo, which is on July 25 with the heats. “I know I have trained for it but have not been very technical about the race. There is room for improvement. There’s so much I have to change, so much I have to work on when it comes to my race - the turns, the number of strokes. These play a major role in cutting down the time. As far as pace is concerned, it is all in my muscle memory, I know how 1:03 feels. When I pay attention to all these small details, it will be easy to cut down the time," Patel, who feeds stray dogs, paints and reads in her spare time, said.
Even in the limited opportunities, Patel has made the most of them, taking her love for water to a different level. From taking the first lessons at Kamlesh Nanavati swimming pool in Ahmedabad - she still goes there whenever in her city - and now at Ameen’s Dolphin Aquatics facility in Bengaluru (Padukone Dravid Centre for Excellence), it has not been a smooth ride for Patel, who is the first in her family to take up swimming.
“Olympics is the ultimate dream. Representing the country at the Olympics is the dream of any athlete and so it has been mine. I professionally started swimming at the age of 10. I learnt it when I was 8. I started winning the club-level competitions. My family had no clue about swimming. None of us planned that I’d be an athlete. I started swimming because my appetite was very poor and I was not eating well. It is said that if you play in water for some time, you tend to eat well. That worked out for me. My mom was satisfied, I’d eat and was enjoying. I continued with it. When they saw me at the club level, they advised, ‘why not give it a shot?’ and see if you like it. That’s how in 2010 I started. In 2011, I got my first school nationals medal and in 2013, I got the fastest Indian best timing in 200m backstroke. After that, there was no looking back," Patel said.
Injury in the last few years has upset Patel’s progress a bit. She was even disqualified in her pet event - 100m backstroke - in the 2019 senior national championships.
She recalled: “In 2017, I was diagnosed with a labrum tear in the left shoulder. That was one of the biggest low points of my sporting career. I was very young and it was a smooth ride till then. I did not know how to handle it. Emotionally and mentally I had given up. It took a lot to come out of it. It was a very bumpy ride. In 2019 I got disqualified for 100m backstroke in the senior nationals. I had a false start. In December 2019, I had a fall in the gym and injured my ankle. Because of some reasons, I could not back out of the 2020 Khelo Games. That was the first time I lost in India. I did not win because my ankle was injured." It is a permanently elongated and ruptured ankle that Patel has to make do with, but that does not come in the way of her swimming or working towards her goals.
Patel’s confidence was boosted by a chance meeting with her favourite swimmer, Michael Phelps, during his visit to Mumbai in January 2019. The lockdown in the first half of 2020 also came as a blessing in disguise for Patel.
She said: “Not being able to swim during the lockdown did bother me. Initially, the lockdown was needed for me because I needed to rest my ankle. Everything was shut officially. I was doing home workouts, recovering mentally. When I started feeling better, it was annoying not to be able to use the swimming pool. I could not swim until the pool reopened after Diwali."
But Patel could not use the pools as they were not being maintained during the lockdown and were dirty. Covid in the family also restricted her movements for a while. It was not until she joined the national camp in Bengaluru in February this year that she got back to proper training.
That’s when the Olympics dream actually began. Patel, who has always been a backstroker and even once told her childhood coach, “If you make me swim backstroke all day, I will do it without getting tired. That is the stroke I always enjoyed the most."
Patel kept motivating herself with what Phelps told her during an interaction two years ago. “I have been very fortunate to meet Michael Phelps and ask him a few questions. I was injured during that time. He has been through everything that sport has to offer. He is the most decorated swimmer ever. When I spoke to him about my injury, he said he could relate and asked me to hang on to it because I was young and had a long way to go. That was very motivating for me."
Besides Phelps, the other swimmers that Patel looks up to are Hungary’s Katinka Hosszú, three-time gold-medallist (100m backstroke, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley) at 2016 Rio Games and Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström, 100m butterfly gold medallist in Rio four years ago. Patel said: “They are very fit and so strong, I really look at how fit they are and how well they swim their races. They are very tough."
For now, it is focussing on her diet and meditating besides working to improve her timings that Patel is focussed on going into Tokyo. And, beyond Tokyo, she is focussing on next year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, where she wants to be the first Indian woman swimmer to stand on the podium.
“Looking at the performances in Belgrade, I have planned for next year’s Asian Games. I really want to work hard to be on the podium," Patel said.
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