Often referred to as the stuff of life, Rehan Poncha has always shared a special nexus with water. The Olympian swimmer tells Priyanka Iyer why he will always go back to the pool even after retiring
HOW DID YOU OVERCOME YOUR OBSTACLES, CONCERNING YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER?
As a child, I suffered from acute bronchitis and my doctor recommended swimming, as it improves breathing. I was 6-years-old and had entered a competitive race at the Otters Club Gala, Mumbai. I finished second to last — 29th out of 31 participants. Though I was still young, this loss ripped me apart. I, then worked very hard for 3-4 months, participated in a race and won the silver medal. There was no stopping after that! I always had massive ego but very low self-esteem growing up. When I was in school, I was a terrible athlete. I couldn’t run fast and always stood last in the races. That really upset me. I was also a very shy child. That’s when I decided that I had to win, if not in athletics then something else. That drove me to pursue swimming. I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, too. I had my dance, and swimming lessons every alternate day. Dad asked me to choose between the two, as it got a little too much for him to manage. I chose dance over swimming. I made that decision when my class instructor told us it was day one of duet dance day, and I was mortified with the thought that I would have to dance with a girl. I ran out of the dance class and told dad that I’d changed my mind and wanted to swim. It’s funny that this is how I made my career choice!
WHICH ACHIEVEMENT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF AND WHY?
I think representing my country at the Beijing Olympics was the most memorable. It’s an honour to be called an Olympian, and I did so in front of my parents who were there to watch me swim at the Olympics. Apart from the above, I think the two Best Overall Male Athlete awards that I received from the Prime Minister at the National Games in 2002 and 2007, as well as the Arjuna Award in 2010 are achievements that are most special to me and give me goose bumps to this day!
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START SWIMSMART CLINICS?
Not being part of competitive swimming anymore, I still wanted to stay in touch with the sport, in other ways. Two years ago, I started Swim Smart — short-format coaching clinics that fine-tunes competitive swimmers in various aspects, such as the element of dry-land training, in-pool workouts, with a motivational talk. Through Swim Smart, I’m in touch with swimmers and the pool. When my swimmers do well, I feel like I’m racing again. I train across India and am extremely happy with the way things are shaping up. It is a compliment in itself when parents of the countries top swimmers have trust in my ability to help their kids reach their full potential. I train golf through the week and do my workshops on weekends. During my time off, I’m travelling for my motivational talks. So, my life is pretty full-on!
IN 2014, YOU WROTE AN OPEN LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER MODI REQUESTING HIM TO PUT ATHLETES FIRST AND PREVENT OFFICIALS FROM USING ATHLETIC EVENTS FOR THEIR PERSONAL BENEFITS. DO YOU NOW FEEL LIKE THERE IS AN IMPROVEMENT?
I think that there surely has been an improvement in the way our athletes are treated and more importantly, respected. They are valued more for who they are, and the effort that goes into being a champion. Yes, you will always find cases where teams and athletes have been treated shabbily, or government officials have taken advantage of the system, nevertheless, we are on a better road today. With Olympics around the corner, there are several financial scholarship schemes that have been offered to medal probable and Olympic qualifiers. More and more Indians who do not play any sport and interested in what our top athletes are doing and that’s a good sign for the future. I would not say its ideal, but we are surely getting there!
WHAT MADE YOU SWITCH FROM SWIMMING TO GOLF AND WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE FROM IT?
From representing India at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to walking home with medals at the Malaysian Open, Singapore Open, and Hong Kong Open, gold and bronze medals at the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam, and several other accolades and awards, I have achieved a lot in the pool. I was a five-time National champion, and held the distinction of being the Best Overall Athlete at the 2002 and 2007 National Games, and a finalist at the 2010 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. In July of 2012, I swam my last competitive race at the qualifiers of the 2012 Summer Olympics. I wanted an extended break from 20 years of back-to-back swimming. At that point of time, I had no intention of retiring from competitive swimming. But then, one thing led to another. With the drive of learning a new sport and missing being in the groove of racing and competing professionally, I saw my attention shifting to golf. I didn’t have it easy with golf either. In the beginning, like any new golfer, I hit terribly on day one at the driving range. By the third day, I was training for seven hours. I would buy bucket after bucket and do my short game practice. I honed my skills further by training with Justin Parsons at the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai. My goals are to be as good a golfer as I was a swimmer. I have pressure to perform in golf, but only the pressure I put on my self. I want to do what no Indian sportsman has ever done — become an Olympian in two different sports!
WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO THE FUTURE, BUDDING ATHLETES?
I think every athlete does require having a certain amount of natural talent and also be physically gifted to play his sport well. But the above only takes him up to a certain level of competence, and from there on, the individual requires many more skills and good training habits. In my opinion, resilience and dedication are most important for an athlete to stay motivated through the hardest training days and competition. I’ve been through so many ups and downs in my career, and the one quality that got me through it all, was that undying attitude to never give up. Every young athlete must have this attitude, and coupled with work and talent, he can achieve all he’s ever dreamt of! That’s my message to budding athletes everywhere.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
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TAKE IT EASY BY THE EAGLES
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BAD DRIVERS WITH NO ROAD DISCIPLINE
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I’D MAKE SURE THAT NO ONE SLEEPS HUNGRY
Volume 6 Issue 1