Meet the three young sailors from Chennai who will represent India at the Olympics
Nethra Kumanan, Varun Thakkar and KC Ganapathy talk about their rigorous training schedule for the Tokyo Olympics, living the dream, and why Chennai is a great place for sailing
The sea at Chennai Port must be proud. Three of the kids who learnt sailing in her waters, will now debut at the Olympics in Japan. Of the four Indians who have qualified for sailing at the upcoming event in July, three — Nethra Kumanan, Varun Thakkar and KC Ganapathy — are from Chennai. The fourth is Vishnu Saravanan from Mumbai.
“In Chennai, the sea offers variety and good sailing conditions almost through the year, which makes it one of the best sailing venues in the world,” says Nethra Kumanan, 23, the first Indian woman sailor to qualify for the Olympics. “Being the first woman wasn’t the goal or focus but it happened and I’m extremely honoured to have been able to achieve that for my family who’ve given up so much for me to be able to do what I do everyday,” she adds, speaking from Hungary where she is training at Lake Balaton.
Young sailors from Chennai have the advantage of being trained at clubs like Royal Madras Yacht Club (RMYC) and Tamil Nadu Sailing Association (TNSA), which organise summer camps for children and adults every year.
Not too long ago, Nethra too was a 13-year-old, wide-eyed summer camp attendee at the TNSA. After the summer camp of 2011, smitten by the sea, she found herself returning to the harbour to sail every weekend.
Ever since, it has been a tumultuous but rewarding journey, lined with unbelievable upsets, as well as exhilarating victories. Spending many months away from family, she underwent rigorous training, taking on everything from boisterous seas to serene lakes. At Lake Balaton, Nethra says she is taking the time to relax and recharge, preparing herself mentally and physically for the games. Prior to this she was practising at an academy in the sunny island of Gran Canaria in Spain.
“With sailing, which is an experience sport, there is no way to replicate the real scenario fully in training. So we travel a lot and race in different places to get that experience,” she explains, adding that conditions in Japan can be erratic.
One can expect medium winds and waves like in Gran Canaria or it can sometimes be light, and shift, like on a lake. So participants need to be ready for everything.
Meanwhile at the far end of Europe, in Portugal, Varun, 26, and Ganapathy, 25, persevere. They are a team and have been one since 2014. With the world’s ultimate sports event looming large, they are training long hours (four hours of sailing followed by a workout), cutting through the blue waters of the Atlantic, wiping away sweat, salt water and occasionally sleep from their eyes. “We are training here in Cascais (a resort town West of Lisbon) as the wind and waves are almost similar to Enoshima, the sailing venue for the Olympics,” says Varun.
Despite the pressure, they are ecstatic about “living the dream”. “We told so many people we will make it to the Olympics. So happy we can walk the talk,” says Ganapathy. Varun adds, “Qualifying for the country felt unreal. We dreamt of going to the Olympics as kids and to make it happen and represent our country on the biggest stage is going to be an experience we won’t forget.”
This year, with the pandemic, there were added challenges. “Things are way harder when it comes to getting permission to travel and train,” says Ganapathy. “We stay in our bubble and do all our training together. We don’t meet a lot of people but that’s helped us remain focussed,” states Nethra.
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The boys are taking part in “the high performance skiff which is called the 49er class”. They qualified for the Olympics in Oman in April this year at the Asian Olympic qualification championships. At the same event, Nethra qualified in the laser radial class. She sails the single-handed woman’s dinghy.
What lies ahead
At the Olympics Varun and Ganapathy’s category will have 12 races spread over six days. Nethra explains that there are 10 classes of boat in Olympic sailing currently. “In my class, we have 44 teams this year, by far the largest number of countries participating this time because of the new gender equality mandate by the International Olympic Committee,” she adds.
For Nethra, Varun and Ganapathy, the second time was the charm. Their first attempt to seal a berth at the 2016 Rio Olympics was futile. “Varun and I were very young and new to the boat. We finished fourth at that event, recalls Ganapathy. The duo believes that they qualified this year because they have been relentlessly pursuing this goal from the time they were 14.
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In a sea of unknown faces, the Chennai trio will have the comfort of familiarity with each other. Given the additional challenges of COVID-19, their plans for Japan are built around their respective events, with little time to explore the country. “It is a huge disappointment,” says Ganapathy, adding that this will be his and Varun’s first trip to Japan. “But we are grateful that the Olympics is going ahead despite the pandemic,” he adds.
Nethra, who visited Japan for a competition in 2019, says she has had to shelve plans of going up Mount Fuji. “Due to COVID-19, we are not allowed to use public transport or go cycling. We can only go between the sailing village and the harbour, so we can’t plan for much else,” she says. But the three agree that the whole atmosphere is going to make for an exciting debut at the Olympics.
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