By Matt Rees
It’s a question that swim geeks occasionally like to debate: “Will there be a time when swimmers simply can’t get any faster?” While no one really knows for sure, given the inevitable evolutions in training and technique, part of the answer will be dictated by something more prosaic: the number of people who learn to swim and eventually compete. The higher the number, the greater the likelihood that a few of them will possess the super-human motivation needed to become the next iterations of Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky.
To expand the pool of swimmers (pun intended) means finding new supply. While there’s always room for growth in the United States, it’s already a “mature” market, with a considerable infrastructure to support swimming throughout much of the country. A more promising source of swimmers, in terms of sheer numbers, is China, as the country’s growing wealth has supported the development of pools, as well as the creation of an elite swimming culture that has produced numerous Olympians and 43 swimming medals. But the biggest emerging market for new swimmers is on the periphery of the swimming scene: India.
No Indian has ever won a medal in swimming at the Olympics and relatively few have even won medals at international competitions. That’s striking, given that India has long been the world’s second-most populous country. Today it is home to about 1.3 billion people and at some point in the next few years it will pass China and become the most populated country in the world. It also possesses a few natural advantages related to swimming. The country is surrounded by water, with nearly 4,700 miles of coastline and there are hundreds of lakes and rivers (alas, even the government doesn’t know precisely how many).
But those natural advantages are offset by a range of challenges, starting with living standards. Average annual per-capita income is about $2,000 and a 2014 McKinsey study found that more than half the population “lacked the means to meet essential needs.” Connected to those conditions, there are relatively few pools, and those that exist are often not open to public. As a result, the basics of swimming instruction and water safety are rarely taught. (A study published a few years ago estimated that 80 people die from drowning every day in India.) Much of the country’s coastline, and many of the rivers, are also highly polluted.
Add all of those conditions together, and a few others to be mentioned later, and you don’t have favorable conditions for developing a swimming culture. One person working to correct that is a lifelong resident of India, Nisha Millet. She brings sterling credentials – in 2000, she became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics, competing in the 200 free in Sydney. Today, she operates a swim school in Bangalore, a city of more than 11 million people. During a recent visit there, I met with Millet poolside at the venerable Bangalore Club (Winston Churchill was once a member) and talked with her about her own swimming journey and her work to help popularize the sport in Bangalore and beyond.
She recalls that at her first swimming lesson at age 9 she was thrown into the deep end of the pool, which left her petrified and wanting to leave the sport. But her father intervened and taught her to enjoy the water, and she gradually discovered a love for the sport. In 1998, at the age of 16, she jumped at an invitation to train in the United States, moving to Arizona for four months and training with the Phoenix Swim Club. (During her time in Phoenix, Millet crossed paths with a few young American swimming dynamos: Gary Hall, Jr., Anthony Ervin, and current Michigan swim coach Mike Bottom.)
She later received an International Olympic Committee scholarship to train in Perth with a group of Australians. With her sights set on qualifying for Sydney, she achieved her goal at a junior nationals meet held a few months later, going 2:06 in the 200 free. Her mom and sister were present for the historic moment and were “going ballistic,” recalls Millet.
She loved being part of the Olympics, where she met Australian swimming legend Dawn Fraser and stayed in the Olympic Village for five days. She also won her 200 free heat, but because the Indian swimming federation had submitted a time ten seconds off her best, she was paired with much slower swimmers.
The experience nonetheless inspired her to continue training, with a goal of returning to the 2004 Olympics. But with a benign tumor pressing down on her spine, and surgery that followed, she missed two years of training, as well as the time she needed to qualify for Athens.
She started teaching swimming soon thereafter, with a focus on making everything fun – her swim school’s motto is, “Don’t worry, swim happy.” She teaches children as young as 4, adults as old as 84, and lots of people in between (including some of Bangalore’s captains of industry). She’s shied away from coaching, saying that her greatest pleasure comes from seeing her students swim that first lap across a pool, though a few of her former students have become national-level swimmers. And she does work with Speedo, which she says is very active in the country, helping to support the large number of meets (about 100) held in Bangalore each year. She recognizes how lucky she is: “Every day I get up and get to do something I love.”
According to Millet, competitive swimming in the country is undermined by the Swimming Federation of India – an entity she says is more interested in protecting its own interests than advancing swimming (the federation head has held the job for decades). Another challenge, she says, is that there’s not a big sporting culture in India: “There’s cricket culture and then there’s the rest of the sports.” One of the biggest obstacles of all is the widely-held belief that chlorine causes one’s skin to darken. In a country where there’s still a significant premium attached to fair skin color (thus the popularity of products like “Fair & Lovely” that supposedly cause skin lightening), the chlorine myth keeps many from even exploring the pool.
Even amid these many challenges, Millet is optimistic about the future. More pools are being built, some schools are making swimming compulsory, and enrollment in her swim school rising. She’s hopeful that more Indians will qualify for the Olympics in 2020 and that, eventually, one of them will achieve that elusive goal: winning a medal.
Matt Rees is president of Geonomica, a writing firm based in McLean, Virginia, and a Masters swimmer.