Different strokes: How a top US trainer is aiming to change Indian swimming

Srihari Nataraj is the national record holder in the 100m backstroke event Srihari Nataraj

Months before Nisha Millet made her debut at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000, she stumbled upon the bewildering world of biomechanics and underwater cameras. She was 18, chasing an Olympic qualifying mark and training in Perth on an IOC scholarship, alongside a bunch of Australian swimmers. "Until then, I'd never seen an underwater camera in my life," she says, "In India, I'd been swimming 16 kilometers every day. But there was no science to our training."

Twenty years on, scientific training - and biomechanics - is still alien to Indian swimming. India has never had a swimmer who's made an 'A' cut (direct qualification) for the Olympics. This year, too, six Indian swimmers - Srihari Nataraj, Kushagra Rawat, Sajan Prakash, Virdhawal Khade, Advait Page and Aryan Makhijia - have picked up the slower 'B' cuts.

Over the past week, the country's elite swimmers and coaches have had a peek into that distant world of scientific training through Dr Genadijus Sokolovas (or Dr G, as he's fondly addressed). One of the finest swimming researchers in the world, who's worked closely with Michael Phelps, Sokolovas was brought to India by the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) and Sports Authority of India (SAI) on a six-day visit.

He could tell what he was looking at right away. "People in most countries outside the USA and Australia ask me one common question, 'We're not as tall or big, so can we really swim?'", he told ESPN. "For my answer, I always look at the sailfish. It's barely one meter long and yet it's the fastest fish in the world. Of course we aren't built like fish but with the right technique and training, we can make ourselves more efficient in water, irrespective of our body sizes.

"Among some of the top Indian swimmers I noticed an overuse of arms, where they should be using their bodies to propel forward. They also need to improve the start of their stroke. Even small changes in the swim cycle can lead to huge drops in timing. In 100m freestyle, a swimmer typically makes 40-50 cycles. If you improve by 500ths of a second in every cycle, it ends up being a fairly big leap."

The Olympics are barely five months away and Sokolovas isn't promising instant results. But if his inputs and recommendations are worked upon, he foresees multiple 'A' cuts for the next Games. But even the 'A' cut is a moving target. The goal should be to develop swimmers faster than current 'A' cuts, says Sokolovas.

In the 100m backstroke event, Srihari (20) currently holds a 'B' mark and a national record at 54.69. It would have been enough to fetch him a bronze in his event at the 2000 Sydney Games. The 'A' Tokyo qualification for his event is set at 53.85. Timings in swimming are dropping at a rapid pace. As many as 23 world records in swimming fell at the Rio Olympics. Overall, around 40 per cent Olympic records in swimming have been broken as opposed to 10 per cent in athletics. Swimmers and coaches are always finding ways to improve aerodynamics, shed drag and shave off milliseconds.

Srihari and Rawat ran through a string of drills in the water at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bangalore as Dr G paced the length of the 50m pool, microphone in hand, and coaches lined up alongside the deck with writing pads and pens pressed to their knees.

"Initially when Dr G showed me my review and analysis, I wondered, 'Do I even know how to swim'?," says Srihari, "After I tried out his inputs, I felt a lot more in control, much smoother in the water and it just shows the importance of correct technique."

The sports science whiz had his implements of "torture", as he called them - strap-on weights, pull buoys, paddles, thera-bands - spread out on a folding table by the pool and found inventive ways to put the Indian swimmers through an hour's grind. Butterfly kicks and slow 360 degree rotations to draw upon greater centre of mass, single-arm butterfly swims keeping fingertips pointed downwards, placing pool buoys between ankles to force smaller amplitude kicks and lower resistance from water, swimming with paddles on the head to reduce head bobbing and less drag when arms enter the water and slapping 0.5kg strap-on weights on wrists to rush arms into faster movement.

"All good swimmers are good kickers," Sokolovas offered in reprimand over the PA system as Srihari lost grip over his pull buoy halfway, "Strong underwater kicks will place the body in perfect horizontal position and propel you forward quicker."

The training included lactate tests and Sokolovas' pet Swim Power test, an evaluation tool he helped develop at USA Swimming. The test instantly registers a swimmer's force and velocity, recording at 60 times a second. It can identify each phase of a swimmer's stroke and its weakest point, the breath cycle and when or whether there's a deceleration. "We have databases of over 15k swimmers logged in from around the world, so we know what each number means," says Sokolovas, who is based in Colorado Springs.

In the Indian swimming context, scientific training has been rare, expensive and more importantly, available only on foreign shores. Senior Indian coach Nihar Ameen traveled to USA in the early 2000s, taking his young student Shikha Tandon along. It's where he first met Sokolovas. Shikha went on to feature in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

"She underwent biomechanical tests and Vo2 max testing (measures oxygen uptake during exercise) for the first time. Later, I accompanied Sandeep (Sejwal) and Virdhawal (Khade) for altitude training in Sierra Nevada," says Ameen, "Almost every other year over the past two decades, I've been taking swimmers who train with me abroad. In India, we don't have a single sports biomechanist with a sound knowledge of swimming. We're just flying blind."

According to studies, swimming is nearly 80 per cent technique. Moving efficiently through a medium that's nearly 800 times denser than air must require more science than plain hard yards. "In our country, technique is lacking in a big way," says Millet. "Especially in the learn-to-swim programs where they're the most crucial. Coaches don't have the know-how or they're based on decade-old teachings. Swimming is constantly evolving - strokes and the science around them have changed so much but you'll find our coaching textbooks in government-certified courses at least outdated by twenty years.

"When I was 15, I went to the USA for a two-month training program and there the daily workouts were not half as tough as what I'd been doing in India. The only focus at that age there is getting the stroke technique right. It set me up with a strong foundation and that helped me through my career. In Australia, as young as five and six year olds are taught to "streamline off a wall". Here in India, most hear the term for the first time only after they turn competitive swimmers."

It was during her pre-Olympics stint in Australia, that Millet realised what she'd been missing all along. "A biomechanics expert filmed us as we trained and we were later shown underwater videos of ourselves and then compared to those of Olympic swimmers. We'd have guys from the sports science department checking everything, even our urine color to make sure we weren't dehydrated, a nutritionist telling us not to eat pasta with white sauce because it could lead to weight gain and a psychologist talking to us about how to deal with pressure."

She wasn't invited to the workshop with Sokolovas; she feels it could be because the bulk of her students are under-14 learn-to-swim kids, who may not be viewed as serious or competitive swimmers. That, though, is the very age group that Sokolovas identifies India must take most seriously to grow its base. He's signed a long-term MoU with the SFI, which has, in addition to camps with elite swimmers, tasked him with designing a talent identification system and drawing up a learn-to-swim program with a standardized sports science template. Level 1 and 2 coaches would then also be brought on board and tutored on the basics of biomechanics.

"Education of coaches is critical," he says, "Coaches can use drills without knowing what it's for and it often leads to poor technique among young swimmers. There's also a need for coaches to be taught how to identify talent. I've built online tools that Indian coaches can use. Once there's a robust talent identification and development in place, it helps build the bottom of the pyramid. The number of elite swimmers in the USA is so high because we have at least 1000 times more people in the sport which gives us the numbers to work with and filter to the next level."

In India, swimming suffers from lack of sufficient domestic competitions, especially at the junior levels. SFI secretary Monal Chokshi compares his job to "filling a leaking tub" with a very high drop-out rate of those transitioning from junior to senior level and shrinking an already small pool of swimmers. One way to improve retention in the sport, he suggests, is by organizing non-medal junior events. There are also plans to float a U-17 swimming league. "Kids don't like to just train," says Sokolovas, "They like to train through competitions. In the USA, there are competitions every week, often overlapping with one another. It keeps young swimmers invested in the sport."

Faulty techniques aside, there's also the problem of overtraining among Indian swimmers, pushed by zealous coaches. "We want our kids to do crazy workouts in the pool and become world champions at 10. It can do a lot more damage than good," says Millet, "I was off the 'B' Olympic qualifying mark for the 2000 Games by roughly two seconds when my coach Pradeep sir suggested I go abroad and get scientific assistance. He was selfless enough to tell me it's the closest he could get me to the mark." Within months of her stay in Perth, Millet improved her timings and made the 200m freestyle 'B' mark, clocking 2:06:08 at the Australian junior championships in April, 2000.

The Games in September that year turned out to be Millet's first and final Olympic appearance. She was laid low by injury thereafter and quit competitive sport. "I literally discovered the science in swimming at the end of my career. Still, I managed to make the Olympics. Imagine what knowing it in time can do for our swimmers."