At the National Games 2022, the swimmer put on a splendid display, a sign of things to come.

First published: https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/trends/sports-trends/36th-national-games-gold-medallist-hashika-ramachandra-14-and-rising-with-every-stroke-9368991.html

36th National Games gold-medallist Hashika Ramachandra: 14 and rising with every stroke

Swimmer Hashika Ramachandra won six gold medals and a bronze at the 36th National Games that concluded on October 12. This is just the beginning.

Earlier this year, Hashika Ramachandra pulled out of regular school. Her demanding swimming schedule, clubbed with the academics, was taking a toll on her body. She would find little time to rest between her morning and evening training sessions. In search of the right balance, she took to homeschooling.

The gamble paid off at the 36th National Games earlier this month. By the end of the meet, Ramachandra, 14, finished with a tally of six gold and a bronze medal. Her impressive performance also won her the best female athlete award at the event. It’s a sign of things to come for the teenager.

But around a decade ago, Ramachandra was thrown into the pool for very different reasons.

“I was a fat kid and my mother put me into swimming because she wanted me to grow taller. I never had any plans of getting into competitive swimming. It was just a hobby, something to do apart from school,” she says.

There was an instant connect that Ramachandra made with the water. She was soon going to local meets and returning with medals. But it was only in 2018 that she decided to take swimming more seriously. At her first state meet in Mysuru, Ramachandra picked up a silver in the 100 metre freestyle. And a few months later at the nationals in Pune, she won another silver in the relay.

“That year, most of my medals came in the relay. But my mother realised I was serious about swimming, and we decided to focus on training,” Ramachandra says.

The following year, the gold medals started coming in, both at state and national level meets. Then in early 2020, she moved to Dolphin Aquatics run by Dronacharya awardee Nihar Ameen. It was where she found a friend and a mentor in new coach, Madhu Kumar.

“It’s been great working with Madhu sir, since he really motivates me to bring my best to the pool. Under him, I started working on endurance, which has really helped me over the shorter distances. For instance, if it’s a 200 metre race, I have the ability to push more towards the end, which has made quite a difference,” Ramachandra says.

Ameen remembers seeing a lot of potential in Ramachandra when she first joined him – a natural in the pool, though not a high-level performer at the time.

“She isn’t the tallest swimmer (at 158cm or nearly 5 feet 2 inches), but she makes up for it with her mental toughness and really good technique, especially underwater. Though quite young, she’s resilient and strong,” Ameen says.

According to him, what has really worked for Ramachandra is the presence of Dhinidhi Desinghu, another young talent, at the same academy.

“A lot of high-level performers don’t have someone to push them during practice. There’s healthy competition between Hashika and Dhinidhi on a daily basis, which has brought out the best in them,” he says.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a halt to all training, but once competitions got underway in 2021, she won eight medals (seven gold and a silver) at the state and six gold at the nationals. Then, in July this year, she achieved personal bests in all her events and set four new meet records at the junior nationals in Bhubaneswar.

“The five weeks before the National Games were intense. I pushed myself hard during training and I’m glad it all paid off,” she says.

The stage was set for her first National Games. Ramachandra was aware that she was a relative outsider in a meet that featured more experienced swimmers. Her target was simple – to achieve personal bests in every event.

“At the senior nationals last year, I competed against older swimmers. I would routinely finish in seventh or eighth place. But it gave me a sense of what to expect,” she says.

“I don’t really think about the competition. The idea is just to give my best and if that doesn’t happen, I know I’ll have more chances to do it. And if it does happen, I’ll have other things to worry about. So I just get on with the job on hand,” she adds.

In the very first event, the 200m freestyle, Ramachandra registered a new meet record en route gold. “But I wasn’t really happy with it, since I missed out on a personal best. It was what pushed me in the other events,” she says.

Ramachandra went on to set three more meet records in the 200m butterfly, the 400m freestyle and the 4×200 freestyle. The personal bests came in the 200m and 400m individual medley, the 200m butterfly and the 1500m freestyle.

Ramachandra was declared best female athlete at the Games.

She considers the butterfly to be her main stroke, followed by the freestyle. Her ability to power through the initial distance handed her the edge in the 200m butterfly and was enough to hold off favourite, Astha Choudhury, despite a slower second half of the race.

On the other hand, in the freestyle events, she maintained consistency over the entire course to keep competition at bay. The focus on endurance of late – the National Games was only the second time she took on the 1500m freestyle – has given her the strength to sustain these strenuous efforts.

By her own admission, Ramachandra isn’t a fan of the longer distances. But the diverse mix of events that she was a part of are all signs of an athlete who is still a work in progress.

“What we are trying to do at this point is put in a base, since she’s still developing as a swimmer. Right now, she’s nowhere near decided on what her best events are. So, she swam everything from the 1500m freestyle down to the 200m freestyle and the medley and relays,” Ameen says.

“We are looking for her to qualify for the Asian Games next year and do really well there,” he adds.

Her mother, Latha, a single parent and homemaker, has been her backbone ever since they decided to get their journey into competitive swimming underway. She’s the first one to be up each morning to dish out meals for the family, before taking Ramachandra to training and waiting at the pool until she gets done.“It’s been pretty difficult because there isn’t much of an income coming in right now. My mother has had to reach out for her savings to make things work over the last few years. I am starting to get scholarships, but I hope the government steps in to help out,” she says.

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