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Kutraleeswaran, born
I remember the first day I looked at water with such love. I was three or four and studying in kindergarten.

It was during one of the usual visits to our native place, near Erode. I was sitting on the steps of the pond while my father, brother, cousins and uncles were swimming. I was crying because I couldn't enter the water along with them.

One of those days, unable to bear my wailing, my father pushed me into the pond. I was very, very scared initially, but within a few minutes I started enjoying the experience. I felt as if the water was my friend and that was where I belonged.

During my second standard vacation, my father told me to learn swimming, as that was what I enjoyed most and wanted to do. It never occurred to me then that swimming could bring me so far.

It was my coach who first sensed my ability. He advised me to concentrate hard as he felt I had a future in it. It was he who asked me to participate in a short distance swimming competition. That was just twenty days after my swimming lessons began. The event was known as the Rippon meet. I did win a medal there, my first medal! It gave me confidence to move to higher levels of competition.

Simultaneously, I started practising in the sea, along with the fisherboys. The huge waves and the high tide never frightened me. When the waves came high enough to engulf me, I tried to beat them. That was how my association with the sea began.

I prefer swimming in the sea. It offers such challenges; fighting against the current, the tides and the waves. Usually people are scared of waves, and tend to run backwards the moment waves come towards them. Hence one needs extraordinary mental strength to swim in the sea. That iswhy I prefer the sea to a pool.

The first swimming in the sea competition I participated in was a 5 km event held here in Madras. I was ten. Meanwhile I had participated in several short distance swimming competitions too.

I met the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha Jayaram during that competition. I told her about my desire to swim across the English Channel. She promised to finance my trip and also asked me to swim the Palk Straits. The English Channel was my first cross country swimming and it was sponsored by the government of Tamil Nadu.

After swimming across the English Channel, I saw a record in front of me: Mihir Sen's record of completing five channels in a calendar year. I wanted to surpass that and I did swim six waterways in the same calendar year (1994). That was how my name and picture got into the Guinness Book of World Records.

All these were expeditions, but they gave me a lot of confidence. Soon I started participating in various long distance swimming competitions across the world. Australia, Turkey, Italy, etc. One thing I noticed was that there were not many youngsters from other countries who participated in sea events, while in India we have so many young swimmers. They are initiated into all this only in the later part of their lives.

But here, though we start very early we leave everything as we grow older. The reason is, as we go on to higher classes, we have to concentrate more on studies and less on other activities. Our sole aim in life is getting a job! That is why we don't have many successful grown up swimmers from India.

Of course, I like India. This is the country I was born in. But it would have been better if I were born in some other country. They have more facilities, you get more exposure there, you can have the most technically advanced training programms and get sponsors too. Till recently I didn't know what difficulties my family faced, especially to collect money, to get sponsors. Only now I understand all that.

I was to participate in a competition in Germany last July. Everything from tickets to visa were ready. We were to start at 5.30 in the evening. At 3 pm we get a call from the sponsors. They said they could not sponsor me. My brother had gone to Bombay to arrange for the visa. At the last moment we had to cancel everything.

I cannot say how disappointed I was then. The government of Tamil Nadu has not reimbursed the amount promised by them. Last year I had gone abroad for a couple of competitions, and the state government asked me to go ahead and collect the amount later on. Till today we haven't received the promised money. All this happens even after me coming first in the junior age group category in Zurich, and fifth out of 216 participants in the open age category.

I feel if we had a lot of sponsors to support us, we Indians also can come up to the world level. We have real, raw talent in the villages that know nothing of such competitions. We too had no idea about these competitions until we entered this field. In India only cricket and tennis get sponsorship, as these two games are very popular. In my case also I love cricket and I adore cricketers.

I think the government should come forward to tap real talent. There should not be any push or pull in the selection process, it should only be on merit.

Since I am in India, I have to concentrate more on my studies now. I am in the tenth standard and I have to cut down on my tours. You see, I have to write a board examination this year. I am told that my future depends on this examination. Had I been in any other country, I would have been able to spend all my energy on swimming.

In other countries, if you excel in some sports, you are eligible for good jobs. But here unless you have a good academic background, you will not get any job. So, I am forced to give more importance to studies than swimming. Given a chance I would like to channelise all my energy into swimming.

When I was very young, I didn't know once upon a time India was under British rule. Only when I learnt history, did I come to know this. I felt very bad and felt like kicking all the Britishers! The first Independence Day which I attended in school was when I was in the fifth standard. Before that I never went to school on that day. I am happy I was born after Independence.

What is the use of money, fame, etc., if you don't have freedom? More than food and shelter, freedom is essential.

I have heard about the high level of corruption in our system. I think corruption is there in almost all parts of the world, but it is more in India, especially in the last couple of years. The fault lies with the people themselves. Why do they elect such bad characters? Before casting your vote, you should think. There is no point in complaining about corruption after electing such people.

When I get a chance to vote, I will definitely do this. I will look at the character of the person, the manifesto of the party, etc. before casting my vote. I don't like to read about bad things, so I don't read newspapers at all.

My dream is to receive the Arjuna award and Olympic golds. But if I want to win an Olympic gold, I will have to go abroad for training as our training facilities are very poor. But I will go abroad only to train, I will not settle down there. I belong here. I have seen many countries, but there is no place like India. Here, there is so much interaction between neighbours, people are friendly, while in other countries, it is not so. Normal days in Switzerland, Finland, look like bandh days in India.

When I went to Italy in 1994, they were very impressed with my performance and offered me all the training facilities, provided I represent their country. They even said they would train me for the Atlanta Olympics but under the Italian flag! I declined the offer because I am an Indian and I want to represent only my country. I want to make my country proud of me, and not some other country. The funniest thing was, they were pleased with my patriotism!

Kutraleeswaran, the boy wonder from Tamil Nadu who swam a world record six waterways in a calendar year, spoke to Shobha Warrier. Kutraleeswaran's photographs by Sanjay Ghosh.