Like it has been every season for the past 34 years, Rajani Naik starts his day at 5.30 am. The early start was essential for Naik to handle the wave of activity that followed. Except now he has nothing to do with most of his time.
“It’s scary at times. The place that would be buzzing with swimmers, divers and water polo teams in mornings and evenings is now eerily silent,” says the employee of the 103-year-old College Square Swimming Club (CSSC) in central Kolkata. Every April since 1986, Naik would open the club gates by 6am for the first batch. Now they have been sealed by a pandemic.
“Records show that the AGM wasn’t held for some years during World War 2, so I guess the pool too was closed. Can’t remember the season not starting after that,” says Gautam Mullick, CSSC general secretary.
Naik, 55, says calls asking when they would start the season have stopped too.
Even as summer settles across the country, swimming pools are likely to remain out of bounds. Though there is no evidence yet that coronavirus can spread through a body of water, social distancing norms can be especially difficult to ensure in a pool. For one, you cannot wear a mask and swim. Swimming also requires changing and shower areas as a basic necessity and those spaces are usually cramped.
“No one is inquiring when the pools will open,” says Raj Kumar, secretary, Delhi Swimming Association.
Barring all-weather pools that are few and far between, the swimming season in most of India begins in March or April and ends in September-October.
“Summer is peak season,” says Vivek Devnani, president of Mumbai’s Khar Gymkhana from where Virdhawal Khade, Neel Roy and Aditi Dhumatkar rose to national and international prominence.
It could be a summer of discontent not just for elite and amateur swimmers—CSSC averages close to 1500 athletes every season, says Mullick—but for all who make a living from the pool. They include coaches, filter-plant operators, life guards and owners of swimming clubs.
“This will have a huge impact on those working in private pools,” says Jaideep Singh, whose family runs eight of them in Chandigarh and employs over 25 people every season.
Life savers such as Lucknow’s Surinder (goes by one name), who would make around Rs 70,000 a year, are out of work. Mullick says CSSC spends nearly R6 lakh per season on salaries of trainers, including expert coaches. “We will have to renegotiate depending on when we are allowed to open.”
That, former international Richa Mishra says, is unlikely before July. Mishra, who hold the national 400 individual medley record, has around 20 trainees at her private academy in Delhi’s RK Puram.
“It’s going to take a very long time to see people go back to the pool like in normal times,” says Devnani. Parminder Singh, Panjab University’s sports director, says it is unlikely the swimmers would be able to use its all-weather pool before the year-end.
In Lucknow, former diving champion Rachna Singh says her promise to sanitise the pool every six-seven hours and temperature-screen her 500-odd trainees may not get them to come. “I think I would lose around R10 lakh this year,” she says.
Ducks out of water
For elite swimmers, no access to water is a disaster. You can only do so much training on land, though coaches are still trying to innovate.
“We might have to look for alternatives to keep our swimmers in shape. One will be joining gymnastics, whenever the lockdown opens, because we have some similar movements,” says Prasanta Karmakar, the 2016 Paralympic India swim team coach who works in the Haryana sports department.
Samir Saha, a former India coach, has created a WhatsApp group for his divers. “Apart from fitness drills, I share clips of past performances of famous divers. You see a good routine regularly, you remember it better,” says the CSSC coach.
Going against the current of doom and gloom is former Olympian Nisha Millet. “If precautions are taken, business won’t be affected. If the water is clean and hygiene standards are maintained it would be safe,” says the former international who set up the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy in 2001 and runs 10 pools in Bengaluru.
“We have a ratio of 1:8 (coach to trainees) but post lockdown it could be one trainer overseeing four swimmers. Each pool has eight lanes, if four swimmers are learning it’s not a big number,” she says.
If you think Millet is is dreaming, she is not alone. Yashwardhan Bishnoi was working on a 400m freestyle medal in the national school games till the Talkatora Indoor Swimming Complex shuttered in March. “The moment I get the okay from my coach, I am hitting the pool,” says the teenager.
Thank you for subscribing to our daily newsletter.