Saurabh Sangvekar is 5ft 10 inches tall, lean, and if not really huge and muscular, possesses a physique that his coach, Pradeep Kumar, deems fit for a long-distance swimmer. His recent exploits in the pool have seen him inching ever closer to the Olympic qualifying mark in the 1,500m event, which, if accomplished, would be the first instance of an Indian swimmer making the grade in this long-distance race.
At the recent 65th National Aquatic Championships in Ranchi (16-20 November), Sangvekar obliterated previous national records in the 800m and 1,500m freestyle events, in addition to setting a new meet record in the 400m freestyle, thus bagging three individual gold medals at the tournament. His performance saw him stripping almost 6 seconds each off the two previous national records.
Focused: Saurabh Sangvekar is fast catching up with the Olympic qualifying time for the 1,500m event. By Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The 17-year-old swimmer has been progressing by leaps and bounds over the last few years. His performances in the 1,500m event serve as a good example. Kumar says Sangvekar clocked in at 16:50 seconds at the age of 14 in training, a time he had brought down to 16:10 seconds by the end of 2010. At the aquatic meet in Ranchi, he completed the distance in 15:51:10 seconds, leaving seasoned, more experienced campaigners languishing in his wake. The difference between him and second-placed Gagan A.P. was a yawning 28 seconds.
“Saurabh’s performances prove that he is much better than the rest of them out there,” says Kumar. “His timing has been improving steadily, and if he goes on at this rate, he should qualify for next year’s Olympics.”
Sandeep Sejwal and Virdhawal Khade have already qualified for the Olympics in the 100m breaststroke and 100m freestyle events, respectively. Sangvekar, meanwhile, is also aiming for the 200m qualifying time for the Olympics, all the while remaining focused on his pet event, the 1,500m freestyle.
Kumar, who coaches at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre in Bangalore, took Sangvekar under his wing at the age of 11. Hailing from Thane, Maharashtra, Sangvekar recalls travelling to Bangalore during his summer and Diwali vacations, and training hard for a month or two before returning home to attend school. He began representing Maharashtra at national sub-junior swimming events soon, and in 2004, pocketed his first gold medal in the 50m butterfly.
It was to be the beginning of a golden run for Sangvekar, who graduated to the junior category effortlessly and capped it all recently with golds in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle events at the Junior Nationals in Bhopal in August. He gives the credit for his performance to the shift to Bangalore, which he made in December 2010, thanks to N.R. Jagdale, president of the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre, who decided to take care of all his training and housing needs.
“I am now training full time at Basavanagudi. It has helped me to become more focused towards my goal of an Olympic qualification,” says Sangvekar.
With his record-breaking burst at Ranchi, 8 seconds separate him from the Olympic qualifying time of 15:43:74 seconds in the 1,500m event. Kumar has been prodding him on, helping him focus his energies on the 1,500m event.
“It is difficult to prepare for races as different as 200m and 1,500m at the same time,” explains Kumar. “Also, the 200m event has too many competitors. The 1,500m event has never seen a qualification from India at the Olympics, and this boy has the potential to do it.”
Kumar lauds his young protégé’s dedication to the sport. Yet he is mindful of the long road ahead for the swimmer, quite evident from the great difference between the timing registered by top athletes and Sangvekar. Sun Yang, the current world record holder in the 1,500m race, and Sangvekar’s professed idol, is ahead by well over a minute. Kumar points to Sangvekar’s steadily improving timing (at Ranchi, he stripped nearly 8 seconds off his previous personal best set in October), and his age as a major advantage, for he considers the peak of a swimmer’s career to lie between the ages of 17 and 25. Going by this, Sangvekar has just taken the first stride.
“I know that the Americans and Europeans are better than us,” says Kumar. “But we are slowly getting there. The improved timing is there for all to see.”
Sangvekar too remains aware of the task ahead of him, and is pushing hard to qualify for the Olympics. Training almost 8 hours every day five days a week, he is currently trying to improve his performance in the last 300m of the race.
At Basavanagudi, he has the good fortune of training with the best swimmers that India has to offer, Rehan Poncha and Sandeep Sejwal.
“The way he is going, by 15 March he should be able to go beyond the qualifying time for the Olympics,” concludes Kumar.