In 1992 as I watched the Barcelona Olympics, my dream began to take shape. I wanted to swim at the Olympics! I was just a skinny 10-year-old girl who had learned how to swim just a year earlier. To my parent's credit, they never laughed when I mentioned this to them. Every day for the next 9 years was spent trying to get me there. It was a team effort between my family, my coach, my teammates, and the support staff. In 1996 at the age of 14 years, I narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Atlanta Olympics. However, I vowed to make it to the next one.
For 4 years I trained 6 days a week, close to 16 km a day in the pool, and sacrificed a lot to prepare for the 2000 Olympic trails.
I got a scholarship to train in Australia just a few months before the Olympic trials and this helped elevate my performance. In April 2000 shortly after I turned 18, I competed at the West Australian State Championships. You have probably heard of athletes talking about ‘being in the zone' and that was exactly how I felt during my race. I felt strong and in control from the second I dived in and when I looked up at the finish of my race, I couldn’t believe it. I had qualified for the 200mts Freestyle and improved on my best timing by more than 2 seconds!
The best feeling was watching my Mother and sister jumping with elation in the gallery and calling my Dad back in India to tell him the BIG news! It was a team effort and we all celebrated and then set our sights on the Sydney Olympics in August.
The lead-up to the big event went in a flash.Travelling back home to join the Indian team in Delhi, lots of media and events, and still keep up with your training schedule. We were so excited to get our Team India kits and try our Saffron, White, and Green Tracksuits. We were given a grand farewell at the airport and travelled along with other Olympians to Sydney.
My idol growing up was Leander Paes (now a 7 time Olympian) and I got to meet him in Sydney. I was speechless when I realized he knew my name and the event I was swimming in.
The atmosphere at the Olympic Village is electric! 10,000 athletes from all over the world are living, training and competing side by side for those few weeks.
I met the greats like Muhammed Ali, Sergei Bubka,Pat Rafter, Ian Thorpe and the US Basketball ‘Dream Team’.
The Olympic Village dining hall was humungous and open 24/7 and had every kind of cuisine available. We stayed in small cottages along with Team India athletes and coaches. Being one of the youngest on the team I was was put with Anjali Bhagwat the legendary shooter and she helped me organize my room and do a little meditation when I got nervous. One of my best friends Aparna Popat (Commonwealth Games medallist) was in the team and this made it even more memorable.
They only select a few athletes to March in the Opening ceremony and since I was racing my event soon, I got to sit with the rest of the team while our teammates marched.
Words cannot describe the feeling when you watch the Olympic Flame being lit, there were happy tears all around. Our hearts swelled with pride as the Indian team marched in waving their Indian flags. I was very emotional as I realized that 9 years of hard work and sacrifices had led me to this moment!
On the day of my race, I was nervous and excited to swim the heats of the 200 Butterfly. I walked out onto the pool deck for my heat and stood in front of lane 4. In moments like this you do indeed feel overwhelmed since you are swimming for 1+ Billion people of your Motherland. I dived in and had a good swim. I won my heat but failed to make the Finals. I was upset about my timing but made up my mind to be there for the next Olympics 4 years down the road.
The rest of my time at the Olympics was about enjoying every minute of the Games. We got tickets to watch Gopichand play his Badminton match and the Indian hockey team compete as well. We were ecstatic to hear that Karnam Malleshwari won India first ever Weightlifting bronze medal. Her room was just opposite mine and we rushed in to wish her with flowers and congratulatory balloons.
I have a lot of photos taken at the Olympics but pictures can never capture the spirit of the Olympics.
With the Tokyo Olympics a month away I can just imagine what our Indian athletes have gone through to make it to the team this time. Training during the pandemic and staying mentally and physically fit has been nothing but challenging to say the least. There's nothing like sports to lift spirits and heal a world ravaged by illness and fear over the past 2 years. Let's hope we come back with more medals than the last Olympics but more importantly inspire future generations of young Indian athletes to dream the Olympic dream.