Sole Sailor: How a 22-year-old Can Get India a Unique Berth at Tokyo 2020

Nethra Kumanan is India's first woman to claim a World Cup medal in sailing.
By Andre Pitts

It’s not everyday that you hear India winning medals in sailing but that’s exactly what happened recently when Nethra Kumanan became the first Indian woman sailor to win a medal in the sport after clinching a bronze in the second round of the Hempel World Cup Series in Miami on January 25th.

The Chennai native found herself in the lead on multiple occasions in the laser radial class, eventually finishing in third spot behind the USA’s Erika Reineke and Greek sailor, Vasileia Karachaliou.

The laser radial is a small, dinghy-style boat that is sailed single-handedly.

Sole sailor from the land of a billion

An engineering student at the SRM College in Chennai, Nethra Kumanan is a more experienced sailor than your average 22-year-old having represented India at both the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games, finishing fourth in the latter event.

Come to think of it, not many 22-year-olds from India can be seen sailing, let alone make a career in the sport.

“Most people don’t know (sailing) exists in India," Kumanan said after her historic achievement. "Our sports (in India) are cricket, football or hockey and it’s more the navy or the army that sail.”

That said, Nethra Kumanan explained why she envisions a bright future for sailing. “I think it’s looking good because now we have more people competing in it at a higher level… the level keeps getting better, so I think more and more people are getting attracted to it. We also see more people than ever before coming in to watch us.”

Taking sail early on

So how did Kumanan first take to the water?

“I came across (sailing) in a summer camp and since then I haven’t been off it for more than a year," she explained.

"I love it, it’s like no other sport, and I played everything as a kid. Sailing has been different and more mental than any other sport that I’ve tried,” she added.

While making it to the global stage in sailing – especially from India – is never easy, Nethra Kumanan believes that all the long hours she’s invested in sailing is well worth it.

“I am 22 and if someone younger were to come up to me, I’d tell them that this sport takes a lot of time, a lot of hours in the water but it’s all worth it. And you get to travel the world, meet people from different countries and experience them trying to do their best and you try to do better than them.”

Nurturing the Olympic dream

Nethra Kumanan, like any athlete has always harboured hopes of representing her country at the Olympics and will have the opportunity to qualify for Tokyo 2020 when the Asian Sailing Championship gets underway on March 15.

She is eager to secure a spot for India and needs to finish in the top two at the week-long tournament in Abu Dhabi. “I’ll try to win a spot for my country there. If all goes well, I can go to Tokyo later this year in August,” Nethra Kumanan enthused.

“We (India) have never been to the Olympics for sailing before. I guess my goal will be to perform in the next Olympics. This time, I have a really good shot at qualifying and I am doing the best I can do, obviously. But to really achieve something I’d give myself another four years,” she added.

Whether she makes it to Tokyo 2020 remains to be seen. However, regardless of how she performs in Abu Dhabi, India can be proud of Nethra Kumanan’s achievements in her nascent career so far as she prepares to spread her sails and go from strength to strength in the future.