Indian columnist and author, Shobha De, recently commented via social media on India’s performance at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. According to her, “Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao. Selfies lo. Khaali haat wapas aao. What a waste of money and opportunity.”

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Translation: Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Go to Rio. Take selfies. Come back empty-handed. What a waste of money and opportunity.

As an Olympian swimmer, having represented India at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the lack of empathy in Ms. De’s comment was startling. It highlights the ignorance that prevails outside the sporting community, ignorance towards what it really means to be an Olympian.

In the summer of 1993, a little girl, all of eight years old, got into a swimming pool for the first time. She was petrified. After dipping her feet in the water for a few minutes she called out to her mother, for she was ready to leave. The next day, she felt better and after an hour of being in the water, she was able to float. In a few weeks, the coach promoted her to the “big” batch where she soon managed to swim the length of the pool. I was that little girl.

The very next year, I won my first medal at the national level. My mother and I had tears in our eyes, but for very different reasons. My mother’s tears were tears of joy, while I cried because I did not like the color of the medal. The bronze medal that I had won that day did not match the glitter of the gold medal. My mother said, “If you want the other color, then you have to work much harder.” Those simple words transformed my life.

For the next 15 years, I trained as hard as I could, and over the course of my swimming career, won 37 international medals for India, 146 national medals, and created 75 national records. Some other highlights included representing India at the Olympics, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, and Asian Games. Training was strenuous and it included 12 sessions of swimming every week, apart from sessions that included running and weight training. A typical training day would include two and a half hours swimming in the morning, along with two and a half hours of weight training, agility, and core exercises. In the evening I swam for another two and a half hours. This was my routine for six days of the week for 15 years! To win at the international level, I had to focus with single-minded determination to excel.

The payoff to this kind of exacting lifestyle came in many forms. One of the most thrilling moments was the feeling I had while walking alongside my teammates during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at Athens in 2004.  During the Parade of Nations, as the name of each country is called out, the entire contingent walks a lap of the ground. The thunderous cheers from the crowd is electrifying, and no matter how many times you’ve experienced this, you are bound to feel tears of joy coursing down, as you walk a lap representing your country among the world’s best.

To compete in the Olympics, irrespective of the country, there are strict qualifying procedures and standards for each sport and unless an athlete meets these standards, you do not qualify to compete. I hope that all Indian-Americans who watch the Olympics realize that each participating athlete has had their own inspiring journey and story, and has passed this exacting litmus test before entering the Olympic stadium. I was the lone swimmer from India to meet the qualifying times, and I got to represent India at the 2004 Olympics. The entire experience is something I will always cherish.

Along with this feeling of elation, came the intense responsibility of the task ahead. Was I nervous? Yes, I was. The atmosphere at such a global stage can be nerve-wracking. I observed athletes cope with this nervousness in different ways—some tried to play down the grandeur of the Games in an attempt to stay relaxed, while others embraced the hype surrounding the Games as a way to get motivated further. Whatever the strategy, the goal was the same for every athlete—to be the best athlete that one could possibly be.

I swam the 50m and 100m freestyle events at the Olympics, with the goal of doing my very best. Why would any athlete who has sacrificed so much do anything less than their best when they have the opportunity to perform on the world stage?

As India returns with two medals from the Rio Olympics, one is bound to ask the question—can we not do better? India has a tremendous amount of sporting talent. I have no doubt about that. However, there are many cultural and institutional barriers that prevent us from producing world-class athletes. Having had the fortune of training in the United States for a few months, I can see the difference between Indian and other international athletes.

Sport is not yet considered a viable career option, even though there have been Indian athletes who have won World championships and Olympic medals. This results in a lot of emphasis on pursuing only academics and this, in turn, forces talented young athletes to drop out of their sport. An example is the drastic decline in the number of Indians participating at the swimming open nationals (no age restrictions) versus those participating at the nationals held for youngsters (under 18 years of age). When you look at the average age of the US National swimming team at the Rio Olympics, it was 23.9 years for men and 22.5 years for women, with the youngest in both being 19 years of age. These statistics further highlight that Indian swimmers, and Indian athletes in general, are dropping out of their sport precisely at the age when they should be training hard to reach peak performance.

Academic institutions outside India overcome this dilemma by supporting the “student-athlete,” an individual pursuing academics, while training and competing in a sport. Olympic medal winners from countries like the United States have once been student-athletes at the school and college level.

In India, while there are a handful of schools and colleges that champion student-athletes, the driving force is typically the athlete’s family. Some parents relocate their entire family to a different city just so that their children can pursue their chosen sport and academics. As a big-picture and long-term solution, this model is not sustainable.

I believe in the power of education. I believe in the power of sport. Most importantly, I truly believe in the power of education through sport. There are many real-life soft skills that one learns through sport, and some that will never be part of a textbook. These include time management, teamwork, self-confidence, goal setting, ability to handle the emotional ups and downs of winning and losing, and most importantly perseverance.

My parents were by my side at the pool throughout my competing days, and encouraged me to pursue my twin passions—biosciences and swimming. Growing up and training in India, I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biotechnology. In 2009, I moved to the United States for a second Master’s degree in Biology. This, along with my swimming experiences, allowed me to transition to a rewarding career post-retirement.

As the Rio Olympics came to a close, I reminisce about my time in Athens. There were 10,000 athletes in various disciplines from across the globe. The feeling of representing my country at Athens was intense, and something that I treasure to this day.

I hope that Indians and Indian Americans who watch the Olympics clap even harder for the Indian athletes who participated in Rio, knowing that there were many challenges that they had to overcome to reach this far. As far as the individual Indian athlete is concerned, what you should admire is their determination, years of hard work and sacrifice, and most of all, their passion for the sport.

Shikha Tandon is, to date, India’s fastest female swimmer. She lives in the Bay Area and mentors athletes and others pursuing their passions. She consults and collaborates with organizations involved in education and sports.  She can be reached at 2powerten@gmail.com

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