Need more competitions to help raise Indian swimming: Shikha Tandon

The former Olympian, an anti-doping crusader working in the US, believes a lot needs to be done in India to compete with the best.
By Naveen Peter

Asian Games at the age of 13, the World Championships at 16 and the Olympic Games at 19, Shikha Tandon was a swimming sensation in her heydays.

Shikha, who began as a long-distance swimmer and then switched to shorter variants, was the toast of the Indian swimming community during her competitive career from the mid-90s to 2009.

It’s been over a decade since Shikha Tandon last took part in a competitive race but she continues her association with the sport in various capacities.

An advocate for clean sports who spent over five years working with the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the Indian swimmer is at the forefront of the global anti-doping movement.

In a conversation with the Olympic Channel, Shikha Tandon spoke about her experiences with the USADA, her interest in bio-sciences, the changing perception towards anti-doping and the future of Indian swimming.

Excerpts

You retired from competitive swimming in 2009 and soon moved to the USA to pursue a graduate course in bio-sciences. When did the interest in the subject start?

As an athlete, you are always looking to push the boundaries of what you and your body can do on a day-to-day level. You are always thinking about your technique, about how your body works, how your body feels. Plus, I had a really good teacher in school... I think the combination of the two is what really prompted my interest in bio-sciences.

Shikha Tandon was just 13 when she competed at the 1998 Asian Games. Photo: Shikha Tandon

The whole field of anti-doping became interesting given my experiences with anti-doping in India. Growing up, there was not much education about anti-doping. I still remember my first drug test as a 13-year-old. I didn’t know anything about it. When you think about the effort that goes into training and competing, I really wanted to level the playing field across the world and I wanted to be a part of that movement to help athletes working hard.

You got your first break with USADA. How was your experience with them?

It’s one of the best things to have happened to my post-swimming career. When you are an athlete, you look at things from an athlete’s perspective, but then USADA gave me that opportunity to look at it from an agency’s perspective as well.

Also being on the science team, you are also a part of all the current research that’s going on. It’s pretty fascinating to know how much effort it takes to keep sports fair throughout the year.

How much has the perception of clean sports changed over the years?

I think there are more and more athletes coming forward to understand how all of this works and be advocates for clean sports. And in terms of education, that’s improving as well.

In India, we are at least talking about anti-doping which wasn’t the case when I was competing. When I wanted to know more about it, I had to approach my coach. He was my one-stop-shop for me. I think that's changing now.

In India, what changes have you seen in swimming over the last few years?

I think over the last decade or so, things are definitely looking up. More kids are getting involved in the sport at a very young age. If you look at the junior programme, there are a number of talented swimmers in there. I really hope that they go the distance and stick it out with the sport.

Today, I think swimming is not perceived as a sport alone, it’s a lifestyle decision. That’s bringing a lot of people into the pool. And hopefully, with more guys competing we could raise the bar of the sport in India.

Things are also changing on the sponsorship front. There are a number of global swimming brands who are in India sponsoring swimmers. This never happened during my time. A lot of athlete management companies are looking at swimmers as well. These are some positive shifts.

Do you think in India, there is enough emphasis on swimming, a discipline that has a number of medals on offer at the Olympics?

It’s hard to say that we do. If we look at swimming and the number of medals that the sport has to offer at an Olympic Games, a lot more needs to be done. Moreover, swimming is a life skill.

If we are to approach it from that standpoint first, we will definitely find more and more people glued to the sport. But having said that, if you look back at some 10 years ago, things are better now. So, yes a lot needs to be done but we are heading there.

What needs to be done to make Indian swimming competitive at the international level?

To start, we need more avenues to compete. Right now the way the Indian swimming calendar is structured, most swimmers in the country have one or two events to swim throughout the year. That’s not enough. We train throughout the year, multiple hours a week.

If you look at the Asian level and the global level, the one differentiating factor is that guys are racing a lot more. Maybe every two weeks. There’s a lot that you can learn when you compete. That’s something that we need to address.

The athletes’ resources and support system also need to be looked at -- be it a nutritionist, a dedicated physiotherapist or sports science.

One of the perils hurting Indian swimming is the dropout rate among young swimmers. How can this be addressed?

I see it as a problem not just with swimming but with most of the disciplines, except for say, cricket. People do not tend to look at sports as a career option. For kids, it’s an extracurricular activity that they can do and that they have to juggle sports, school and colleges.

The way the system is set up in India, there are very few colleges in India that actually support student athletes to pursue extracurricular activities with their academics. That’s something that needs to change across the country. Yes, there are pockets that are doing a good job, but I think that needs to be consistent throughout the country.

The other thing, every athlete is interested in being a part of the sports ecosystem for a long time. But the options that they have are limited. Many times they feel obligated to go into coaching because that’s something that they know. It's great if you want to be a coach, but nobody should feel it’s their only option.

When you look at it globally, there’s so much that athletes can do from a career standpoint. If we can start talking about these career options from the school level, we can have kids stay in the sport longer.

Does coaching need to step up as well for Indian swimming?

I think we do lag behind if we are to look at coaches on a wider scale and compare them to the knowledge and the experience that coaches have around the world. There is a stark difference. And a lot of it stems from the lack of education to what really is out there and what’s cutting edge.

Srihari Nataraj is one of India’s upcoming swimming talents. Photo: SFI

But look, knowledge is one thing and having the resources to implement that is another. And that’s the game-changer. It’s one thing to read from the textbook and another thing to implement with the swimmers daily. Yes, the federation is doing its bit now, but that’s just 'step one'. I think we need to work towards helping the coaches implement the knowledge.

Despite the difficulties that surround Indian swimming, what is it that gives you hope for the sport’s future in the country?

It’s the progress that the Indian swimming community has made over the past 10 years. Now we are seeing a lot more people getting into the sport. There’s also the recognition that the sport is getting now. That gives me hope that over the next few years this can be pushed up to be an important sport in the Indian context as well.

Qualification for the Tokyo Olympics is on. Can we, finally, see an Indian clock the ‘A’ cut (Olympic Qualifying Time) this time?

I hope so. A few of them are pretty close to the ‘A’ cut. I get that they have had a major setback with the pandemic spoiling all of their plans. But if there’s one thing about swimmers is that they are very resilient. And they are mentally really tough. The few meets that were held this month, they have given some really good timings given the fact that they were out of the pool for that long.

I am hoping that during the qualifying phase till June, they have enough competitions to compete and then they get that ‘A’ cut. Because that will be a big milestone for the swimmers who come in the next eight to 10 years.