Likith scripting a tale of fortitude

Personality

Likith SP has overcome a series of injuries to bag five gold medals in the Khelo India Youth Games and achieve the ‘B’ qualifying standard for the 2019 FINA World Championships. DH PHOTO/ SK DINESH

Likith S P looks at ease at the Nettakallappa Aquatic Centre. Having spent the better part of the last few years training across the world with stints in South Africa and Austria, living at home, a mere 5km away from the training centre, suits him. 

“I missed out on a lot of action in Indian swimming. I was not there for 3-4 years, so people thought I’d already quit swimming,” he laughs during a chat with DH

If his six medals, five of them gold, at the Khelo India Youth Games weren’t enough proof of his improvement, the Karnataka swimmer turned in his career-best time of 1:02.02 in the 100m breaskstroke at the Malaysian Open swimming championship last week to further advance his credentials. The feat saw him achieve the ‘B’ qualifying standard for the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju.

As he enjoys the success and works towards improving his timings further, it is a bit ironic that the 20-year-old had come close to walking away from the pool some time back.

Rated as one of the most promising young athletes back in 2015, Likith was picked up by JSW for their Sports Excellence programme. A laundry list of injuries and slow rate of improvement landed him in a rut.

“I wasn’t in that zone,” he says. “I wasn’t stable, I kept moving from place to place. I had pressure from my sponsors and from home because they were not happy with my performance... I was dropping just 0.2 seconds or 0.5 seconds every year which is not good.

“In South Africa (for training) I was struggling with a groin injury. When I shifted to Austria, I got a meniscus tear on my knee. I had qualified for the Asian championship, Asian Age group and a short course meet in Tashkent at that time but had to withdraw. I thought that was my time to rise but I was missing out on all the competitions.

“We had the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games (last year) and I was close to the qualifying time. 28.8 (28.79) was the qualifying time (in the 50m breaststroke for Asian Games). In December 2017 I was sitting on 28.9 and all I had to was reduce 0.1 seconds in the next six months. I was working hard but it wasn’t getting anywhere. Then I injured my other knee, the right one. Meniscus again. I hit rock bottom in June 2018 and I thought it wasn’t for me.”

Likith talks matter-of-factly, a fact he attributes to his new-found attitude.

Asked what turned it around, the Jain University student of psychology replies after a pause: “I thought it was easy to give up. It was just self-motivation and the people around me who helped.”

Having laid his foundations at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre, his stints abroad varied in their focus. Under Graham Hill in South Africa for two-and-a-half years (2015-2017), the training focused on endurance. During his stay in Austria under Dirk Lange between the end of 2017 and mid 2018, the priority was on explosiveness. He also had the chance to see Olympic champion Chad Le Clos in action up close and rub shoulders with Lithuanian Giedrius Titenis (London Olympic finalist) among others.

He was learning, all he needed was help to put it all together. Knowledge is power, but only in the right hands.

“I knew coach Partha Varanasi a bit and I felt confident that I could improve under him. We have a more specific programme for me here at the NAC which includes yoga, flexibility etc. The coaches adjusted their schedule and put a lot of work and in the race there (in Malaysia), it all came in handy.

“I have home food and support along with all the facilities at one place. Taking the leap to NAC back in December 2018 helped in getting back the motivation. I dropped a lot of time also, over a second in four months here,” he reveals.

Asked about specifics, the breaststroker opens up: “Flexibility of my lower body was an issue. It was for my knees to get the rotation right, mobilise my hip joint which helps me get more propulsion. We’ve fixed it maybe 40-50 percent right now. The technique also has changed. It’s more efficient and less resistance, I can say.”

Nirup G R, one of his coaches at NAC, shed more light on his training.

“He didn’t have the timing between kick and pull, his kicks were going down, hips were not up...but the good thing is he understands the science behind swimming, he’s dedicated and mentally strong,” he says.

The current holder of the two age group national records, 100m breaststroke (Group I) and 50m breaststroke (Group II), Likith is now raring to go. While his win in Malaysia made headlines and put him in the same class as the other elite Indian swimmers, it was a victory Likith had been desperately looking for.

“This win was needed, for myself. I have potential and it’s not lost. That’s a good motivation,” he says. “I can say I’m an underrated swimmer in India and I’m happy because I feel like the underdog. I’ve learned to be okay with failures.” 

That last bit comes out bit ruefully although it does add to his sense of purpose looking ahead.

“June 20, 2020 is the day Olympic qualification period closes,” he says. “I’m just 0.27 off the ‘B’ cut but we’re not looking at that. We’re looking at the ‘A’ cut. So that’s a big goal we are looking forward to.”

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