“Champions are not made by ability, Champions are made by something they have deep inside them – A desire. A dream. A vision.” Justifying this quote is Sharath Gayakwad, an Indian Paralympic Swimmer and Arjuna Awardee from Bangalore. Born with a deformed left hand, he was the first Indian swimmer to qualify for the 2012 London Paralympics, where he finished ninth in the 100 m butterfly event. Two years later, he won six medals at the Asian Para Games, the most by an Indian at a global multi-discipline event, breaking PT Usha’s record of 5 medals.
How he started swimming?
He attended the Little Flower Public School in Bangalore, where his parents were initially apprehensive of sending him to mandatory swimming classes because of his disability. However, he eventually took up swimming classes at the age of 9 along with the rest of the class. Soon after that, he was to be seen participating in various swimming events for the disabled. In 2003, trainer John Christopher spotted him swimming at a school event, and ended up training Sharath for 7 years. Christopher explains that Sharath was the first paralympic swimmer he had coached, and that Sharath had to work a lot on maintaining equilibrium, because of his deformity.
Stepping into Competitive Swimming
In 2002, Sharath Gayakwad came to know about the existence of competitive para-swimming in India. He began training for the 2003 National Championships. At his very first attempt at the National Championship, Sharath Gayakwad won four medals, gold in the 50 m and 100 m breaststroke, 100 m freestyle and 200m medley. His prolific performance caught the eye of national coaches, who selected him to participate in the Youth Pacific Games. He was the youngest Indian representative at the event, aged just 12.
After regularly participating with the senior team, Gayakwad was included in the 2010 Asian Para Games. Defying the 100 m breaststroke ranking narrative, he clocked a bronze medal winning time of 20.90 seconds.
In 2011, he would go onto win two medals at the International Deutsche Swimming Championships in Berlin. He also held the 50 m and 100 m Asian breaststroke record, during the time.
Two major international titles would see Sharath reach a career 13th in the world rankings.
Don’t Retire, Focus on Swimming : Rahul Dravid to Sharath
While he swum in laurels, Sharath Gayakwad felt his body revolt. His right shoulder was sore from the hours clocked in training alongside attending full-time college. He contemplated an even earlier retirement but told himself to continue till the 2014 Asian Para Games. Chiefly because of one man – Rahul Dravid.
Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid coaxed him against his retirement decision. Sharath said, “He told me to concentrate on the Asian Games. We kept in touch through email as well, he taught me how to be a better sportsperson.”
Sharath took Dravid’s advice very seriously. He went onto win six medals in Asian Para Games, eclipsing P T Usha’s 36-year old record. This made him the most successful Indian athlete at an international multi-sport event. Sharath won silver in the 200 m medley, bronze in Men’s 100 m Butterfly, bronze in Men’s 100m Breaststroke, bronze in Men’s 100 m backstroke and another bronze in the 50 m freestyle. His sixth medal came in 4×100 Medley relay event.
Sharath loves to Coach
Today, as he stations himself by the deck of the pool at the Pooja Aquatic Center in Bengaluru, kids, in their trunks and goggles, swarm around him, lapping up instructions, the lumbering ones finding themselves landing headlong into the bright blue waters with a gentle push on their backs, Sharath, 25, knows it’s where he belongs.
“I always wanted to be a coach,” he explains, “I had a taste of it when I assisted my coach John Christopher every now and then during breaks from competitions and enjoyed it.”
Sharath Gayakwad at Present
Now, Sharath is one of three Indian sportspersons – along with Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik – to be named by Forbes magazine among their Under-30 Superachievers in Asia. The honour was also an acknowledgement of his efforts to make swimwear more accessible by setting up an aggregator – Gamatics – that acts as a link between domestic retailers and international brands. He also nurtures ambitions of taking his efforts beyond the pool to cater to sportpersons from other disciplines as well.
Sharath Gayakwad has also said Rio Paralympics are not in his immediate plans. He added, “I’m looking to develop the sport in India, plus I have a major injury and it’s recurring. I am yet to qualify for the event, but I won’t be swimming until I recover. So let’s see how it goes.”
Sharath’s growth trajectory in swimming gives inspiration to all budding athletes in the country. Not only did he defy physical disability, but the ace swimmer also fought his way through infrastructural and societal problems, en-route to becoming India’s most successful sportsperson.
“What I learned was that these athletes were not disabled, they were super abled. The Olympics is where heroes are made. The Paralympics is where heroes come.”
– Joey Reiman