New Delhi, Aug 30 (IANS) High on exuberance after receiving the Arjuna Award, talented para-swimmer Sharath M. Gayakwad is determimined to strike gold at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Gayakwad, who has enjoyed a successful run at the international level, missed out on a podium finish at 2012 London Paralympics despite clocking personal best timings in all the four events he participated in.
But after having received the prestigious Arjuna award at a glittering function at Rashtrapati Bhawan on Saturday evening, the young swimmer was all fired up to do the country proud in Rio.
“The Arjuna award is one of the biggest honours for an athlete in the country. So it is a huge motivation for me. I am preparing for the qualification tournaments for the Rio Olympics which are due to be held next month,” Sharath told IANS.
With the 2016 Paralympics just a year away, Sharath’s statement may sound like an empty boast to some. But given the 24-year-old’s glittering record at the international level, it would perhaps be foolish to dismiss his chances outright.
One of the best para-swimmers to be born in the country, the Bengaluru lad has been in excellent form in recent months.
He bagged six medals at the Asian Para Games in Incheon, South Korea last year. This was the highest tally of medals by an Indian at the Asian Games. The record was previously held by legendary athlete P.T. Usha who won five medals at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games.
“I did not expect to win so many medals. I had worked very hard in the run up to that tournament so winning six medals gave me a lot of happiness and motivation to put more effort into my training,” Sharath said.
But success did not come easy for Sharath. Hailing from a modest financial background, his tryst with swimming started as a nine-year-old at the Little Flower Public School in Bengaluru.
His parents were initially apprehensive of allowing him to attend the mandatory swimming classes because of his disability. But the plucky lad was determined not to let a deformed left hand hold him back and managed to convince his parents to allow him to take up swimming.
“I faced a lot of problems during the early days. My disability made it difficult to maintain equilibrium in the water. But my coaches urged me on,” Sharath reminisced.
“Learning to swim gave new meaning to my life. It gave me a lot of confidence and made me realise that if I put in the required effort, I could succeed in life despite my disability,” he added.
Initially attracted to swimming because of its health benefits and the fun factor, Sharath started to become more seriously involved with the sport when he was spotted by coach John Christopher at a school tournament in 2003.
He gradually started to win medals at state and national level tournaments and ultimately decided to become a professional swimmer at the age of 15.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to join the army. But as I grew older, I realised that my disability will prevent me from achieving my dreams. But swimming made me realise that I can be an achiever in my life,” he said.
“I won gold at the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (Fespic) and Fespic Youth Games at the age of 15 and that is when I decided that I wanted to build a career in the sport,” he added.
“Even at that age, I had started to compete against senior athletes and was confident that I had a bright future in swimming.”
Like most Indian athletes, Sharath had to struggle against poor facilities and training conditions at the national camps.
But with the government and private sector showing renewed interest in supporting para-athletes, he is hopeful of a bright future.
“There has been a big improvement in the performance of Indian para-athletes since we have received a lot of support over the last four to five years.
“We are already performing well at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. If this support continues, then we will regularly win medals at the World Championships and Paralympics as well,” Sharath opined.