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The sailor who made history for India

Last updated on: October 17, 2018 15:47 IST

'At the Asian Games I had a dream, to stand on the podium and have the tri-colour hoisted.'
'I missed one thing in Jakarta -- the national anthem being played.'
'I hope to make it happen at the Olympics by winning gold,' Asian Games silver medalist Sweta Shervegar tells Norma Godinho/Rediff.com.

IMAGE: Sweta Shervegar, right, with Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sweta Shervegar/Facebook

Sailing is considered an expensive sport. But consider this: A young woman raised in a Mumbai chawl pursues medicine, then goes on to make sporting history.

That historic moment was India winning three medals in sailing at the Asian Games since 1982.

Sweta Shervegar and Varsha Gautham's perseverance and self-belief saw them sail to a silver medal in the 49er FX Class at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August.

Following her podium finish, Sweta was inundated with congratulatory messages on social media and on her arrival from the Games, was greeted by family, friends and admirers carrying huge placards and banners.

"Around 200 people came to receive me at the airport. In my neighbourhood with the tri-colour wrapped around my shoulders, I was paraded on horseback. People from the area were there cheering for me. Crackers were lit, drums were played," Sweta, 27, recalls.

"Seeing a middle-class girl like me bringing home an Asiad medal was a proud moment for my neighbours," says Sweta, who is currently in her final year of homeopathy.

Following her arrival from Jakarta, Sweta has been felicitated by her school (St Isabel's, Mazgaon, south central Mumbai) her college (YMT Medical College, Kharghar, Navi Mumbai) and received invitations to visit pandals during last month's Ganesh festivities.

While soaking in the admiration, Sweta knows only too well the many tribulations Varsha and she endured to make it to the Asian Games.

India's highest world-ranked team in the 49er FX class, Sweta and Varsha had to knock on the doors of the high court for justice.

 

Here's why: The pair was initially not chosen by the Yachting Association of India to represent India at the Asian Games in the 49erFX event despite having all the criteria in place for selection.

Feeling shortchanged, Sweta and Varsha decided to take their battle to court.

"Before the Asian Games," she says, "the first selection trials was held in Chennai in April where the top two teams were going to be selected for the Asian Sailing Championships and whoever won that event would go to the Asian Games."

"We got silver at the Asian Silver Championships despite me sailing with an injury I had suffered a week before, cutting my finger while rigging the boat during training and had to have six stitches, hampering me."

"But the Yachting Association did not follow norms, twisted them and chose another team to represent India at the Asiad even before the end of the Asian Sailing Championships," Sweta adds.

IMAGE: 'Our coordination has always to be strong and we need to understand each other. We don't have time to speak, so we need to work like one soul.' Photograph: PTI

"So we voiced our opinions considering we had a better record than them (the other team) and we were medal-winning prospects. But there was no respite. So we decided to approach the Delhi high court for justice," the champion sailor remembers.

"Those were three testing months. Since we had the records to show that we deserved to go to the Asian Games we knew we would win the case and that is what exactly happened. The high court asked the Indian Olympic Association to pick our team," she adds.

"Today the results are there for the showing. We feel vindicated."

"We only had a month's training before the Asian Games because of this problem. Had we had enough time to train, we would have surely won gold," she asserts.

When Sweta was felicitated at her school, she used this struggle as a reference point to tell her young audience to never give up.

'One should believe in oneself, never lose hope, keep fighting to fulfill your dreams and work hard,' she said.

Sweta's tryst with sailing began when she followed her brother into the Sea Cadet Corps, a non-government youth organisation.

"I started sailing at the age of 12. I joined the Sea Cadets at 10. If you knew swimming you could join sailing. So I gave it a shot and over time it became my passion," she tells Rediff.com.

"I started my career in the Optimist Class (the first boat for beginners for children aged 8 to 15). I won the nationals in the Laser Radial Class. I participated in my first nationals in 2007 and I won the gold medal at that event," Sweta recalls.

"Later that year, I went to an international event in Thailand. I then sailed the Laser 420 Hobbies, Enterprise class."

Sweta dabbled with table-tennis, basketball and pistol shooting, but it was sailing which caught her fancy.

"Sailing is my passion and love for the sea," she says.

IMAGE: Sweta gave up sailing for four years to become a junior national coach before making a comeback to the sport. Photograph: Kind courtesy St Isabel's High School

"Devoting time to studies and training was tough. I had to run home from school, go for training, come back home and study, do my homework and sleep. I had the same routine. My school authorities were supportive in terms of granting permission to take half-days and go for training or my events," the Asian Games silver medallist recalls.

Sweta says she is inspired by Argentinian sailor Santiago Lange who fought lung cancer to win the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the Nacra 17 mixed catamaran class. Santiago has just one functioning lung.

"His story inspired me to not give up despite the many challenges. It especially gave me strength when our matter was in court," says Sweta who sails yachts for recreation.

Sailing is an expensive sport -- a 49er FX Class boat costs around Rs 2 million or Rs 20 lakhs -- and coming from a modest middle-class background, roadblocks were bound to spring up for Sweta.

"I didn't get proper support in terms of funding so I took up coaching. We need a boat and equipment. All of it takes a lot of money which I didn't get enough of to pursue my passion. So I applied to become a junior national coach," she says.

"I left sailing and was coaching for about four years so to get back to competitive sailing and that too in the 49er FX Class needed a lot of effort from me. My talent was spotted by Chief National Coach Peter Conway and Amish Vaid. Varsha was looking for a partner. We have been sailing the 49er FX Class for the last year," Sweta adds.

"The 49er FX is a highly competitive demanding boat that can leave you physically and mentally drained out. My motive was clear from childhood -- to represent India someday," says the champion who trains two hours in the gym and four hours at sea.

IMAGE: Sweta is grateful to Coaches Peter Conway and Amish Ved, centre, who helped build a winning partnership with Varsha Gautham, right. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sweta Shervegar/Facebook

"Varsha is a pro at sailing the 49er FX. She has been doing it for three years," says Sweta. "She has a lot of experience sailing this specific boat. I was a beginner, so she had to practically coach me while training."

"I had moved away from competitive sailing and had never sailed the 49er FX Class of boats. There was a lot of effort from both sides as well as from Coaches Peter Conway and Amish Ved before building our winning partnership," she adds.

Detailing the technicalities of the sport and how things pan out once the competition begins, Sweta says, "The boat is motorless and runs on wind. There are two sails on the boat and two people on it. The two people on the boat are called crew and helm. The bigger sail I handle as I am the crew."

"The helm steers the boat and the crew sails the boat. I have to keep the boat flat and maintain speed. The technical knowledge and strategies of both sailors together brings success."

"Our coordination has always to be strong and we need to understand each other. We don't have time to speak, so we need to work like one soul. We need to know what the other is thinking without saying it out loud."

"Because it is a very fast boat, there is no time to think, talk and work. We have be connected."

"It was difficult at first, but we improved with practice. We practiced, and practiced hard to make things easy for us at the championship level."

"We do have disagreements and arguments while training, but at the end of the day we realise we need to let go of them because eventually we understand that we are a team and are racing for India," Sweta says of her bond with Varsha.

Their camaraderie extends to outside competitive waters.

"We go shopping together, we love eating. Because of me, she shifted from Chennai to Mumbai to sail with me. She is like my soul mate," Sweta notes about their winning partnership.

Their next big challenge is the World Championships early next year. Sweta has not stepped on a boat since she returned from the Asiad last month.

"The World Championships is sometime early next year in New Zealand and our coaches (Peter Conway and Amish Ved) said we should train in Portugal. The training should start in December. But we are still looking for funds to sponsor our boat and trip."

"We have a private sponsor but we need more funds. We have approached companies like Edelweiss, we have mailed Tata Power, Reliance Power, Patanjali, but we haven't received a response yet."

"We are still struggling, waiting for the government's help as well," she says.

IMAGE: Sweta and Varsha's next big challenge is the World Championships for which they seek funds and sponsors. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sweta Shervegar/Facebook

The World Championships are a qualifier for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

"Before the Olympics there are qualifiers. 20 countries are allowed to participate. 10 slots have been booked so there are just 10 more up for grabs. One will be an Asian qualifier, 4 of the other 9 will be able to qualify for the World Championships. The other qualifiers are continental competitions. Those qualifiers will happen in 2019 and 2020."

"Training for the World Championships is important for us and we are waiting for funds to go for training," Sweta adds.

No Indian sailing team has ever qualified for the Olympics and Sweta wants to set a precedent.

"My personal target is to qualify for the Olympics and win gold for India," she says.

"At the Asian Games I had a dream, to stand on the podium and have the tri-colour hoisted. I missed one thing in Jakarta -- the national anthem being played. I hope to make it happen at the Olympics by winning gold," she says, clearly determined to make that event happen.

Norma Godinho / Rediff.com