“We sold our house to fund my training”

She is just 30, and still holds the Indian national record for the 200m freestyle swimming, 8 years after retiring. Nisha Millet swims through this deep diving Citizen Matters interview.

Pic courtesy: Nisha Millet.

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 Bengaluru-based swimming ace Nisha Millet did. The Olympics don’t just happen to you. You work your way to it. Read on.

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.

Nisha still holds the Indian national record for the 200m freestyle, 8 years after retiring. Incredibly enough, Nisha just turned 30. She lives in Langford Town.

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.

In this summer special feature, Citizen Matters caught up with Nisha just before the start of the swimming peak season in Bengaluru.

Nisha, what is it about Bangalore that helps so many swimmers excel?

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 Bengaluru is definitely another factor.

Where did you train when you started off?

I was born and brought up in Chennai and I learnt my swimming there. I moved to Bangalore a little after I began competing. I have trained at various pools across the country including the BAC and K C Reddy Swim Centre.

Do you still compete? How often do you do your own training?

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.

What were the challenges you faced as a swimmer vs. what you face as a coach?

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.

Even a minor item like daily usage charges for a swimming pool in Australia where I trained for several months in a year for the Olympics can be significant. Once I qualified for the Olympics, the Australian swimming pool that I used waived those charges despite the fact that I would be competing against Australian swimmers at Sydney!

I was also 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.

As a coach, one encounters the expectations of both children and their parents, whose motivations aren’t always aligned to their effort or goals.

Did you get any help from the ‘system’?

My club tried its best to provide as much support as it could in the form of coaching as well as pool usage. However since I trained in Australia for quite a long time, they couldn’t do much beyond what they did. There wasn’t much monetary support from the Indian government although I was the recipient of sponsorships from Coca Cola and Adidas for a while. As discussed earlier, it is quite expensive to train at the highest level.

Do you have any plans to get into administration of sports in India?

My coaching commitments take up most of my time and administration is also a full-time activity. I have no such plans currently.

Is there any reason girls have outshone boys in India in swimming?

That is not true any longer although in my time Indian girls/women did quite well in swimming. Currently the boys/men are doing extremely well with two men (Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal) having qualified for the 2012 London Olympics and one more (Aaron D’Souza) on the verge of doing so.

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.

Pic: Dharmendra D.

What does one need beyond basic gear? How expensive/cheap is swimming?

In addition to swimsuits, one may need swimming goggles. There are also kick boards, etc. Competitive swimming is another world altogether as I discussed earlier about my own investment in training.

What does training for a competitive swimmer involve?

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.

Are there are other facilities like your academy where people can train?

Once you become competitive, you will perhaps train at one of the multiple facilities such as BAC or the Global Swim Centre (formerly the K.C.Reddy Swim Centre). Otherwise you will perhaps train and learn at one of the several pools across the city. Although there are several camps which run seasonally, I am not aware of too many other options similar to my academy.

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.

Where does one start?

You start swimming at club levels, inter-school competitions, etc., and go through state and national levels based on your performance.

What about people who aren’t swimmers but want to participate in Ironman/triathlons/other such events? Do you train people for such competition some of which involved swimming in the open sea?

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 Ironman distances and other triathlon distances.

I have also trained nearly a hundred swimmers in the last few years who have to complete a predetermined distance in the sea to pass their Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI – scuba diving) certification. They train with my advance adult group & have all successfully completed various dive training certification courses.

If you had 3 things to say to aspiring swimmers what would it be?

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.

What do you do currently beyond your coaching?

Coaching swimmers is a full time activity!

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