by?Alfie D’Souza, Team Mangalorean
“In 2002, I had a back surgery due to which I missed two years of practice and hence the next Olympics. But it wasn’t the surgery that I gave up swimming. I quit swimming in 2005, when I was 23 years old, though I was fully recovered. I quit because my parents were struggling financially to pay for my swimming career. And also because there was not financial support from the government”– Olympic Swimmer Nisha Millet
It was Sunday June 1, 2014 morning,( I had come to Bangalore to watch the IPL finals being played at M Chinnaswamy Stadium-Bangalore in the evening and was staying at Catholic Club), while I was having my breakfast at the Club, I met Olympic Swimming star Nisha Millet, who was at the helm of a swimming competition that was going on that morning. In between her busy schedule at the event, she tried her best to interact with me and answer few of my queries, and also pose for a few camera shots.
How do you think your life would be if you developed a fear of water before you were even 6 years old, having fallen into a pond? Well you could end up at the Olympics as a swimmer! That’s what Bangalore-based swimming ace Nisha Millet did. The Olympics don’t just happen to you. You work your way to it. Nisha is one of India’s most illustrious swimmers, having won numerous medals at various national and international competitions and went on to become the only Indian woman swimmer at the Sydney Olympics. Since then, only one other Indian woman has qualified for the Olympics in swimming.
Born on 20 March 1982 in Chennai, when Nisha was 6 years old she accidentally fell into a pond that left her with hydrophobia. Her father, determined to take out the fear, decided to put her in swimming classes. “The first three weeks I didn’t enjoy myself. Then my father took it upon himself and taught me how to swim and that was when I developed an interest,” says Nisha. She was nine when coach Pratap saw her and started training her. Within a year things were looking good. “However back then, there were hardly any good pools in Chennai, so in ’94, seeing my enthusiasm and progress, my family decided to move to Bangalore so that I can continue my swimming,” she remarked. She used to read a lot on swimming which gave her a better understanding of the sport. What got her more hooked to the sport was when she won five gold medals at the age of 12. “I was big for my age and my parents decided to put me in the Senior National Championship instead of the junior one. My competitors were all in their 20s and I was just 12. But when I won five medals I was really proud,” Nisha recalls.
Millet who started swimming in 1991 at the age of nine, won her first medal in 1992 at the sub junior nationals. Initially she was coached by her father at the Dolphin club in Chennai. When she showed a lot of promise by winning 4 Gold Medals as a 12yr old at the Senior National Championships held in Goa, that’s the reason her family decided to move to Bangalore to focus on her swimming career. She then progressed on to represent India at various international competitions. It culminated with her representing India in Olympics at the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney after training under coach Pradeep Kumar at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre. She is the only Indian sports person to have won 14 gold medals ever at the 1999 national games held at Manipur and win the prime minister’s “Best Sportswoman” award twice.
Besides swimming, making confectioneries like cakes and pastries, and travelling, are her other interests. Nisha emerged as a precocious talent on the Indian swimming scene when she dazzled in the senior Nationals at Goa in 1994 with four golds. She was just 12 years old then. She then travelled a long way in her career as she remained an undisputed queen of the pool in freestyle and backstroke. In 2000 she was conferred the Arjuna Award, Karnataka’s Rajyotsava Award in 2001 and the Ekalayva Award in 2002; Afro-Asian games, women’s backstroke Silver medal – 2003
Ask her if youngsters are taking up swimming as a serious career options and she says, “Compared to my time, things have changed a lot. Ten-12 years ago, no one would think of taking swimming as a career.” She stressed on the fact that the government hardly does anything when it comes to swimming and adds, “Even parents, not just kids, have to dedicate their lives to it. Things are changing, but at a very slow speed,” she says.
According to her, this is because swimming is not considered a profession as of now. Someone who is really interested in the sport has to shell out a lot of money as it is an expensive sport to learn. “You need a good, clean pool, good equipment, a sport psychologist, physiologist, dietitian, etc. All these things cost and there is hardly any money to earn,” Nisha confessed.
So how did she manage? “My family supported me a lot. Also I entered the sport very early and that was a plus point.”. She also says that international exposure helped her a lot and stressed that it’s a must for everyone, “as it’s more professionally run. You find out where you are lacking and learn a lot. You feel more confident as you see world champions swimming with you in the next lane.”
So if she enjoyed swimming, what made her quit? “In 2002, I had a back surgery due to which I missed two years of practice and hence the next Olympics,” she said. But it wasn’t the surgery that made her give up swimming. “I quit swimming in 2005, when I was 22 or 23 years old, though I was fully recovered. I quit because my parents were struggling financially.” Though retired from swimming, her passion is still alive through her swimming academy in Bangalore. Despite her pedigree as a swimmer and as a swimming coach, she has made a conscious decision not to train swimmers at the competitive level, for now. She aims to build a strong foundation where young swimmers are taught good technique.
After her retirement in 2006 and her marriage to Bikranjit Chatterjee, Nisha became a coach and set up a swimming academy, which now has several training centres across the city. ?I train kids from six to 12 years in basics and teach them all strokes. Once they reach a certain level and are ready for competitions, I recommend them to other professional academies like the BAC. I don’t want to get into the business of training for active competitions as you know it is full politics. I am happy doing my own little bit this way,? says Nisha. Arhatha Magavi, the State’s top female swimmer, is Nisha’s ?find’.
Nisha feels the standard of swimming in the women’s section has come down. She also laments the lack of sponsors for swimming. ?They say it is not a spectator sport, but if they ever watched the kind of media blitz and corporate support at international meets, people will change their minds.? What swimming in India needs is a big star, says Nisha, adding that Indian swimmers, barring a few, sadly quit due to academic pressure and other reasons.
Once a Olympic level swimmer and Arjuna award winner, her life as an athlete says much about India’s generic attitude towards athletes, her family, and her determination. Her struggles reflect those of other athletes. If there are families who have given much to a sport, Nisha’s would be one. The reality of the sacrifices her parents made and a beginning tumor on the spine set Nisha back after she reached her first round at the Olympics. Today she coaches and supports young athletes, just as her parents did, to reach greater heights than she did.
Nisha has always been a multi-tasker and her babies, Adele and Ariana, haven’t changed that aspect of her life. The Arjuna awardee continues to train young swimmers at her academy in Bangalore, being brand ambassador of swimwear brand Speedo and helping people stay fit this festive season though swimming. And what tips would she give to other new mothers who want to get back in shape? “I know it’s tough to find time. But I’d advise all new mothers to find time for themselves,” says Nisha. When it comes to swimming, the average woman is worried about finding the right swimwear and also fears getting tanned. Nisha feels the fear of exposing post-childbirth flab is what keeps new mothers away from the waters. “For this, it’s important to get the right kind of swimsuit and a good sunscreen” she advises.
“Start with fun activities, chat in water with your gal pals, get into the pool with a person who’s a better swimmer than you,” said Nisha who vouches for group swimming. “Water is a good way to de-stress”, she says. Being born to Nisha, her daughters Adele and Ariana are certainly water babies.? “I’d love for them to be swimmers,” she says. Nisha, however, feels that children of sports persons are usually never in the same sport. But Nisha plans to train them in some sport or the other even if it isn’t swimming.
In the midst of her busy life, there are moments when Nisha misses the rush of competitive swimming. Winning over 600 medals and an Arjuna Award, Nisha retired from competitive swimming after nearly 16 years. “I definitely don’t miss those tough training sessions. But sometimes I do miss the crowds cheering around you and the rush of beating a tough opponent. But all athletes miss that once they retire, don’t they” she asks. Nisha still holds the Indian national record for the 200m freestyle, 10 years after retiring. Incredibly enough, Nisha just turned 32 this March.
Despite her pedigree as a swimmer and as a swimming coach, Nisha has made a conscious decision not to train swimmers at the competitive level, for now. Her aim is to build a strong foundation where young swimmers are taught good technique and learn to love the water which is very vital when they decide to enter the competitive field at a later point in their careers. However Nisha does have junior-national level swimmers from all over India who come all the way to Bangalore to do one-on-one stroke classes with her to improve their techniques & have gone on to win many a national medal.
“Bangalore is indisputably India’s swimming capital. The weather is a big factor as one can train round the year due to Bangalore being relatively pleasant. The sheer number of pools in schools, apartment complexes, etc., is another factor. The availability of two of the best coaches in the country for competitive swimmers (Pradeep Kumar at Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre (BAC), Nihar Ameen at the K C Reddy Swim Centre) in Bangalore is definitely another factor ” she said..
When asked if she plans on competing in swimming again, she said, ” I don’t compete currently although I do occasionally swim at club-level competitions for ex., I am on the Bangalore Club Swim Team but I haven’t competed since I retired. I may participate in the Masters level competition sometime in the future when I get more time away from coaching. Anyone who is over 26 can compete as a Masters swimmer, both at the national and international levels “.
“Till I qualified for the Olympics, my family tried their very best to support me to the extent that we sold our house then to fund my training. Over a decade or so, we spent almost Rs.10 lakhs a year on various aspects of training including nutrition, gear such as swimsuits etc, physiotherapy, usage charges for swimming pool etc. I was once the recipient of a one-year scholarship from the International Olympic Council which helped me part of my expenses to train in Australia for the Sydney Olympics. However it was still very tough ” Nisha added..
As a coach, one encounters the expectations of both children and their parents, whose motivations aren’t always aligned to their effort or goals. There are not many women who have done well at the international level in the last 4 years. Even at the 2008 Olympics, we had 3 men (Rehan Poncha, Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal) but only one woman (Shikha Tandon) in the Olympics. When asked what does training for a competitive swimmer involve? She replied, “Even as a reasonably good swimmer, one needs to train for about an hour each, twice a day, 6 days a week, swimming a few kilometers every day. Once one becomes competitive, the training hours go up and there will be time spent at the gym (for swimmers over 10 years old) in addition to time spent in the pool. At peak, I used to swim over 15 km a day “.
When asked, how early or how late can people decide to participate in competitive swimming? “Most swimmers who go on to become competitive start at around the age of 5 or 6. I started at around 9 but my example is a not so common. You start swimming at club levels, inter-school competitions, etc., and go through state and national levels based on your performance. It is never too late to learn swimming. I have three people over the age of 75 years who are regular in training. I do train and have trained people for swimming in events which involve swimming in open-sea as well as swimming long distances in endurance events including Iron man distances and other triathlon distances ” she said..
?In the end, all Nisha has to say to young aspirants is, “Swimming is a lot of hard work. You need to train for 4-5 hours a day even if you are in the age group of 6-10 years and that is without gym work which adds on once you get older than age-group. So be prepared to work long and hard patiently. Don’t let your studies slip while in the pursuit of your swimming goals. It helps you to have a reasonable academic record if you need a career option outside swimming. You need to think long term and not chase quick results only. Swimming is a very boring sport. It’s just you and the water. You have to eat, breathe and sleep swimming.
You need to be very dedicated, especially for this sport, as you are alone in the water and cut out from the entire world. The positive side is you get great physique (laughs).”