A 13-year-old boy, training at the Rajagiri Swimming Academy in Kochi, wins international medals
By Shevlin Sebastian
"On the day of the 50m backstroke final, I had fever," says Turbu Valiyaparambil, 13, who took part in the first-ever South Asian Swimming and Water Polo championships held at Islamabad, Pakistan, in early September. "But I still managed to win a silver medal, because I had a strong finish."
Turbu also won a bronze in the 100m backstroke in the Under 14 category. Around 300 swimmers, both boys and girls, from six countries-- Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal and Bhutan--took part. So, it was a remarkable achievement for a boy who grew up in Pattambi in Palghat and was taking part in his first-ever international competition.
At the swimming pool of the Rajagiri Swimming Academy, which is part of the Rajagari Public School, in Kalamassery, Turbu is doing a backstroke lap in the 25 metre pool. It is clear, even to the untrained eye, that his body is not streamlined enough and there is a slight movement of the head, but the talent and the energy is evident.
Turbu is one of six members of the Sports Division run by the Rajagiri Swimming Academy. The others are Ananda Krishnan and Sreeresh R.N. (Under 12), Rekha C.R. and Emilda P. Raju (Under 14) and Abhijith (Under 17). Asked about the mode of selection, Unnikrishnan Nair, 31, the head coach, says, "The criterion was the performance in a particular age group and the timings. Most of them are already on the national list." Since the children are from Thiruvananthapuram and Palghat, the girls are staying at St. Bridget’s Convent in Kalamassery, while a house has been rented for the boys.
"We are spending Rs 2 lakh annually on their board, lodging, education and swimming expenses," says Fr. Austin Mulerikal, the director of the Academy. "This is part of the social commitment of the CMI (Carmelites of Mary Immaculate)."
Fr. Austin says the academy wants to make the swimming facilities available to students who cannot afford to study in Rajagiri Public School. "In fact," he says, "the sports division has been set up exclusively to aid talented, financially-strapped sportsmen from outside the school."
The six swimmers come every morning and evening for practice in the school pool. During the day, the children study in government and private schools in and around Kalamassery. Turbu, with his commendable performance in Islamabad, has moved ahead of the rest.
His father, Harish Chandran, worked briefly for the Air Force before he became a farmer. "My father was very interested in swimming," says Turbu. "He made a 25 metre pond in our house. I started swimming from the age of four." All the four children, with unusual names like Nandiya, Hardian, Stabile, and the youngest, Turbu, were taught swimming.
His coach says that Turbu's main drawback is the lack of a proper technique. "For example, in the backstroke, his head wobbles," says Nair. "I corrected this and the entry of his arm into the water. When he got it right, he bettered his timing in the 50m backstroke by three seconds, which is a huge improvement."
So what are his ward’s future goals? "Next year, Turbu should win the gold in the under 14 age group in the South Asian championships," says Nair. Adds S. Rajiv, secretary of the Kerala Aquatic Association: “If Turbu continues to receive intensive training, he is bound to win more international medals.”
Turbu has higher ambitions. "I want to win an Asian Games gold medal," he says.
This is a valid goal, but he has to practice extremely hard for the next five to six years to achieve this. But there is little hope of reaching a world standard. Nair gives a small comparison: "Turbu, at 13, has a height of 5' 6". In Australia, a 13-year-old swimmer will have a height of 6’1” or 6’ 2”. With one stroke, the Australian swimmer covers around 8 feet. The best senior level Indian swimmer has a reach of only 6 feet.” The Australians also have the advantages of proper training, top class infrastructure and coaches and a calorie-rich diet.
However, some aspects, like a good diet, are being followed in the academy. For example, after every training session, the swimmers get a glass of milk and a banana or an egg. There is a weekly timetable for meals. "On Monday morning, breakfast is puttu and kadala," says Nair. "For lunch, it is rice, sambhar, curd, and three vegetables. At night, it is chicken and chapatti." The chart is put up in the kitchen and the cook follows it diligently. And the six are also diligently chasing their dreams.
"We want to increase the number of students to 12 and are looking for sponsors," says Fr. Austin. "The Kerala Sports Council has shown some interest and have asked us for a proposal."
Says Rajiv, who is also a member of the Kerala Sports Council: “We want to support the project with money and technical assistance, because, apart from Turbu, we feel there are a few more swimmers who can do well at the international level.”
So, it looks like the future of swimming in Kerala is Turbu-charged.
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)