11 Aug 2017
5 min read
Art & Culture
One of the best things about interacting with young athletes is their earnestness; they call a spade a spade. When we were talking about the 2016 Rio Olympics, teenager Sirish Gurung didn't talk up his chances of clinching a medal because he knew that his chances were slim. "Considering the amount of training and facilities you get here, it's not right for people to place all their expectations on the shoulders of athletes," said the 18-year-old. "My aim was to break the national record, which I did, and make the Rio trip a memorable one for me."
The Kathmandu-based youngster has, from a very young age, become the country's hope in a sport that does not see frequent participation by Nepalis in international competitions. A bonafide child prodigy, Gurung has been a force to be reckoned with, both in and out of the pool--clinching many swimming titles, acing his studies, mastering 11 musical instruments and learning to drive at the early age of five.
Confident, smart, yet grounded, Gurung is pretty realistic when it comes to his swimming career, and shared with Alok Thapa of M&S VMAG that he wants to pursue sports medicine in the future, so that he can continue being a part of professional sports long after he has retired from swimming.
When did you start taking swimming seriously?
I'm told I was a very restless kid. And I'm sure that all that energy was exhausting for my parents. In order to expend some of that energy, I was made to take part in a lot of extracurricular activities--swimming being one of them. I started swimming when I was five years old. At first, swimming was just a way to pass some time, but after two years, I started getting serious about it. My parents have been my biggest supporters. Without my mother's encouragement, I wouldn't have been able to achieve so much. My mom still accompanies me to my swimming practices, and makes sure that my diet is being maintained.
I believe you also started driving at a very tender age. How did that happen?
I was always fascinated by automobiles, and when I showed interest in driving, my parents didn't stop me. Of course, to the outsider it might look like my parents were a little reckless, but I was never put in a dangerous situation. When I turned six, I was able to drive a car, a truck, and also a bike. My parents have taught me that learning is about having the confidence to take risks.
Didn't you ever feel that swimming robbed you of your childhood?
I have been rigorously training since I was 10 years old. It's true that I have had to forgo family gatherings, festivals, even school functions, just so that I could be in proper form. And there are still times when I feel like I'm missing out when I see my friends doing normal teenager stuff, while I spend all my time training, but I take heart from the fact that I am pursuing my dream. I'm doing this because it is important to me. I'm willing to give up other things to make it work. Swimming has definitely given me an identity and exposure to the world.
In Nepal, not a lot of people take up swimming as a sport, let alone as a career. Can you tell us a little about the difficulties you have faced?
A heated pool for swimmers has become the stuff of folklore among Nepali athletes. We only have a six-month window to train; once winter starts, we try to keep ourselves fit by doing a lot of out-of-water cardiovascular training. Those who can afford it go to Thailand or India and continue their training, but the rest of the swimmers just go on a long break. The challenges don't end there. Even during the swimming season, we are faced with a lot of problems. The Satdobato Swimming Pool is the only international standard swimming pool in Nepal, but since the pool hasn't been registered by the Swimming Association, we constantly struggle to avail of its facilities. Imagine the problems we face when 40 to 50 swimmers are cramped in four lanes.
What do you think needs to be changed?
I think if the pools were under the Swimming Association instead of how its management is determined by government tender now, that would at least safeguard the facilities for swimmers. There are times when we are not allowed to swim, or we are charged for using the facilities. It would also be of great help if we had a heated pool, as that would prolong our training period. Being an athlete in Nepal is a tough job--you don't get proper facilities or support from the government, and when you don't perform well, you receive a lot of backlash from people.
How is the competition in domestic tournaments?
I guess, even though I am only 18, I have experienced all the highs and the lows in swimming. When I started out in 2008, the competition was pretty intense, but over the years, I have seen it wane and pick up pace. There was a time when I was winning many tournaments and setting many records; after a point, my victories didn't even feel like victories because I didn't feel challenged. But now, there has been a surge of interest in swimming, and that has given rise to new swimmers. This has definitely evened the field, and that's keeping me on my toes, which is a good thing.
You come from a well-to-do family. How does it feel to compete with people from humble backgrounds?
To be a professional swimmer, you need a lot of funds. The right gear--swimming costumes, caps and other equipment--can be quite expensive. I have, however, been very fortunate. My parents have always supported me, financially and emotionally, throughout my training. I see many of my fellow athletes struggling to make ends meet, and while this saddens me, it also motivates me to perform better and not take for granted the facilities I have been blessed with. This was the reason why I decided to start my own foundation to support athletes who could use a little bit of help.
Tell us about your foundation.
We started Sirish Foundation to support swimmers who have the potential to do well but are financially constrained. I don't claim to fully support everyone financially, but I do feel that with the little help the foundation has been providing, swimmers now have the confidence to perform better. The foundation's aim is to recognise hidden talent in Nepal and give talented people due credit. Right now, we are fully sponsoring Wushu player Nima Gharti Magar, who clinched a gold medal in the 12th South Asian Games. We are looking after her studies, accommodation, training equipment, and proper diet under a nutritionist's guidance. We want to provide her with as much international exposure as is possible.
Share with us your experience in the Rio Olympics 2016.
Our journey to Rio started with us, the Nepal Olympic team, sleeping on the floor in Doha; let's just say it was a unique challenge. Upon arriving at Rio, my friend and I got sick because of the long journey. However, I'll never forget my first Olympics. When I came out of a dark passage into a stadium where thousands of roaring spectators were shouting and chanting, I was stunned. I had never felt more proud than when I walked into the Olympic Stadium in Rio, donning my national dress, marching behind our unique flag, with the Nepali team. It was an experience of a lifetime.
What were your personal expectations from the Olympics?
I believe everybody who takes part in the Olympics gives their heart and soul to be there, and of course, it's all about having self-confidence. But I'm a very realistic person. I was not there with the target of reaching the semi-finals, or winning medals against seasoned players from other nations who have trained for years, with better facilities. Instead, I had set a different target for myself. I wanted to break the national record in the 100m freestyle--and I did. For me, representing Nepal in the Olympics already felt like winning a medal.
You're hailed as a child prodigy, a national swimmer and a good student. We hear you are also into music. How many instruments do you play?
I can play around 11 musical instruments--five Eastern and six Western. Even though my preferred choice of instrument is the keyboard, I love the sarangi too--it was one of the toughest instruments to master. I have also recorded an album and have made a rap video.
Clearly, swimming isn't the only focus in your life; what do you plan to pursue in the future?
I will swim as long as my body allows me to. There's no turning away from it; it's my life. Currently, I'm preparing for my medical entrance exams because I want to become a sports medicine physician later in life. So even if I'm not competing professionally, I will still be a part of the game. To be able to treat athletes and help them maximise their potential would be a dream come true.
(Photos by Nirnit Tandukar)