As many as four Indian sailors have qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the strongest ever contingent at the Games. Even though medal expectations are far-fetched in each of the three events India is set to feature in, the sailors are leaving no stones unturned to put up a spirited show.
Sailing in India has been more of recreational or economic activity, with the sports aspect receiving negligible attention. But, the first sailing race in India, surprisingly, was conducted in February 1860, during British Rule. By the time India got independence, four sailing clubs in India were already active and 13 years later, in 1960, the Yachting Association of India was formed to look into the activities of sailing, windsurfing, and motor-boating in India.
India’s first entry in Sailing at the Olympics was at the 1972 Munich Games when Soli Contractor and A.A Basith competed in the Flying Dutchman Event, securing the 29th spot overall. Till the 2016 Rio Olympics, nine sailors had represented India at the mega-event. However, the country is set to field its strongest ever contingent at the 2021 Tokyo Games, with as many as four sailors qualifying for the upcoming spectacle.
Now, let us have a look at the Indian Sailing Team for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics -
Vishnu Saravanan (Men’s Laser)
When the 2020 Olympic Qualifiers in Abu Dhabi were cancelled due to the pandemic, Vishnu Saravanan was forced to leave his boat and equipment in the Arab country and fly back empty-handed to Malta, which had been his training base for quite some time. However, that hardly demotivated the sailor who was on a mission. Along with the likes of his coach Alexandr Denisiuc, he has also worked on his physique and mental conditioning to fill in the idle time. It would help Vishnu immensely in the long run.
Finally, at the Mussanah Open Championship, in Oman, earlier this year, the sailor booked his spot for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics with a second-place finish in the Men’s Laser category. However, if we turn back the clocks, he was perhaps destined to achieve such heights. Determined to accomplish the unfulfilled dream of taking up sailing professionally, Vishnu’s army-man father Vishnu Saravanan introduced his two children to the sport. With initial sparks, Vishnu was selected in the Madras Engineers Group (MEG) Boys Sports Company as a cadet in 2015.
Soon, the youngster started winning competitions at the junior level, becoming a youth national champion in 2016 and followed it up with a silver medal at a Hong Kong series in the same year. Vishnu was enrolled in the Indian Army as a Naib Subedar in 2017. However, his first major international break at the senior level was the national championship win in 2018. One year later, Vishnu shifted his training base to Malta and has been training there ever since. Vishnu is one of four Indian sailors to have qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Nethra Kumanan (Women’s Laser Radial)
The Chennai girl had ventured many avenues as a youngster - Tennis, Basketball, Cycling, but it was shaking a leg to the classical dance form of Bharatnatyam that instilled Nethra Kumanan with values like discipline, hard work, and dedication. These virtues would eventually help in the long run, not in a dance act, but inside a boat in the sea. At the age of 12 that Nethra was introduced to Sailing during a summer camp, organised by the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, in 2009. She was so engrossed by the sport, that everything took a backseat since then.
Backed up massively by his younger brother, Naveen, who was himself a sailor, Nethra was striving to reach greater heights, while she was still in her teens. Simultaneously, pursuing her educational career, the sailor got big breaks in her career, by winning the national championship twice and finishing runners-up on as many occasions. Her first major medal win was at the India International Regatta, in 2014. She represented India at the 2014 Incheon Games and finished fifth at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.
Two years later, in 2020, Nethra Kumanan became the first Indian woman to win a World Cup medal when she claimed bronze at the 2020 Sailing World Cup in Miami, USA. At the 2021 Mussanah Open, in Oman, she became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics and also the first ever from the country to earn a direct qualification. The previous nine entrants from India secured berths to fill up remaining quotas that could not be occupied for the mega event. Set to feature in the Women’s Laser Radial category in Tokyo, Nethra is currently gearing up under the guidance of Hungarian coach Tamas Eszes in Gran Canaria, Spain.
KC Ganapathy (Men’s 49er)
KC Ganapathy had quit school when he was in the ninth standard to entirely shift his focus on sailing and got himself admitted to an open university. However, he had started sailing at the age of six. By 2010, Ganapathy had featured in his first international event – the Asian Sailing Championships and finished at the eighth spot. At the same event, seven years later, he claimed a top position to establish a foothold at the top level. But, his biggest achievement still remains the bronze medal win at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, alongside Varun Thakkar.
Initially rivals, KC Ganapathy later teamed up with Varun Thakkar in 2010 and has been competing in the Men’s 49er event since then. The duo featured in the 2018 49er European Championship and 2019 49er World Championship and finished at the 25th and 65th positions respectively. Among the recent success, the sailors finished second at the 2019 49er Asian Championships. A top-podium finish at the 2021 Mussanah Open Championship was enough to secure a berth for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Varun Thakkar (Men’s 49er)
Academics have never been his point of interest, nor did he score good marks in exams to consider itself as a future option. Varun’s father, who never questioned him regarding exam results, also owned a shipping agency in Chennai and used to sail for work-related issues on Sundays. It was back then, his father had asked Varun and his sister to join him for a sail someday, and that was how he was introduced to the sport. Even though Varun was almost seven around that time, it was three years later, he really started the tough grind.
However, Varun's breakthrough moment arrived only after he joined forces with compatriot KC Ganapathy to compete in the Men's 49er category. After eight-ten years of hard work, the results are finally paying off for the professional sailor from Chennai. Realistic as he has always been, Varun is not hoping for a fairy-tale at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics but is expecting a top-ten finish.
As requested by the Indian pair, they have been sanctioned a 28-day training tour (Top Olympic Podium Scheme) in Cascais, in Portugal, by the TOPS (Top Olympic Podium Scheme) in the build-up to the mega event. The Men’s 49er event at the Olympics will kick-start on July 27.