It was a proud moment for Gujaratis, when six athletes from the state qualified to represent India at the 2020 Olympics and para Olympics in Tokyo. Interestingly, all the six participants are females, which shows that women's participation in the sports is on the rise in the state. In an interview with Asian Voice, Maana Patel, a swimmer, and Ankita Raina, table tennis player, talked about their preparations and expectations.
AV: How many years has it taken for you to make it to Olympics?
Maana: When I was 13, I became the youngest and fastest female backstroker in India so that’s when I realized that I can do much better and had a dream of representing India at the Olympics. Sadly I missed the Rio Olympics but finally the dream is coming true after 8 long years.
AV- You’ve survived a major shoulder injury. What did it take to heal and start again?
Maana: In 2017, I was discovered with a labrum tear in my left shoulder which kept me out of the water for almost 8 months. And even after that getting back to swimming was very difficult because I lacked power and strength. My shoulders became very week and I wasn’t able to swim like before. I couldn’t accept this condition and hence I was depressed for quite some time. I had lost a lot of weight and was really scared to go to pool or even begin my day. I had given up hopes of coming back. But my team which includes my parents, my coach and my physio believed in me more than I did and they kept pushing me and motivating me. Deep down I knew I couldn’t stay away from swimming and I needed one good race to bring my confidence back. In 2018 I broke my senior nationals record and got back in the groove.
AV: What are your hopes and expectations from the Olympics?
Maana: Olympics are going to be very different this year because of the Covid restrictions. But this being my debut will set the bar for me. I’m very excited and am looking forward to my race there and am confident to perform my best.
AV: How did Covid impact your training?
Maana: Covid had disturbed my training and I think swimming was the most affected sport. In other sports you can somewhat train sitting at home but for swimmers there was nothing more that we could do away from the pool. So I just focused on eating clean and maintaining my fitness at home. Once the pools reopened, with proper planning I got back to training.
AV: What would your message to readers whose kids may want to become like you one day?
Maana: I just want to say that if I can do it, you all can do it too. It’s important that you focus on mental strength and I believe that’s what gives you an edge. If you align your body with your mind then you can do wonders. Because in the end it’s all in your head, and whatever work you do you have to give your 100% or else don’t do it.
AV: How many years has it taken for you to make it to the Olympics? Could you briefly explain the process of getting there?
Ankita: The journey to the Olympics has been a long one and in tennis it’s even more difficult; as there’s no one event which you can participate and win to qualify like in some other sports. First you have to be top 80-90 to qualify for the singles event, top 60-70 combined ranking in doubles event, and even then just 4 players from each country can participate even if you are within that ranking. With hard work and the support of family, coaches, team and sponsors I could get here. I've had good performances in the main draw and in doubles. Also playing and winning along with Sania Mirza in Fed cup matches has given me lots of experience and confidence. So this time when the team was finally announced, I was finding it tough to believe as it was supposed to take place last year and it was pushed. There was no certainty that Olympics would be held during the pandemic. I have to keep pinching myself to see if this is actually happening. Representing the country at the Olympics is the dream of every athlete and that dream now will turn into a reality for me. I know I’m going to have to play my best tennis ever, and that’s what I’m focusing on.
AV: How do you cope with the pressure of winning all the time?
Ankita: I think this pressure is actually a privilege. It’s natural to have nerves. Of course it's my debut at the Olympics so I want to be able to give my best and have been preparing for it. But for me my best will come when I play for the country, pressure is what we play for, and as I said, it’s a privilege!
AV: This year spectators aren’t allowed, what impact will it have on your performance?
Ankita: I will miss the crowd but I have played matches without them and I feel once I’m on court, I only see the ball. Spectators are the heart of the Olympics, so I will miss cheering and the atmosphere. The Indian fans are absolutely incredible, no matter where in the world you go, and I’m always extremely thankful to have them in our corner!
AV: What do you think is lacking in terms of promoting women’s sport today?
Ankita: I think women’s sport today, especially in India, has come a long way. We have idols like Sania, Mary Kom, PV Sindhu, and so many others that are winning us laurels at the highest level. That surely helps alleviate some of the concerns parents have at an early age. Parents need to be comfortable letting their daughters actively play sport, and support them throughout their journey. Together we can ensure that more girls take up sport, and be the next shining star of the nation.