Sebastian Xavier at his house in Chennai; on the shelf, the Arjuna Award (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kuttanad is the region with lowest elevation in India.

On average it is seven feet below sea level.

Its origins are obscure.

One version says that it was forest reduced to ashes in a fire, inspiring the name Chuttanad, later corrupted to Kuttanad.

The place is an intense mix of water and vegetated land; rivers, canals and backwaters abound in the region. Human life tracks this ecosystem. Many houses still have waterfronts, families own canoes and until recently, it was common for everyday supplies and even letters, to arrive by canoe. Ever since a childhood visit to Thalavady faded to hazy memory of traveling by canoe, my only encounter with Kuttanad had been crossing the Thottappally Spillway near Ambalappuzha; part of many journeys between Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi via NH 47.  The spillway lets out excess water coming from upper and lower Kuttanad. As you crossed the spillway, you gazed inland and remembered: all that and beyond is Kuttanad. Early July 2017, it rained as the state transport bus from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi, sped along NH 47. I had been instructed to get off at Haripad and take a bus for Edathua. There is a reason why you don’t sense Kuttanad on NH 47. It is a coastal highway and although the Thottappally Spillway separating the saline water of the estuary from the fresh water of Kuttanad is on the highway, as ambiance, it is the sea’s nearness which dominates. That receded as the bus to Edathua turned off NH 47 and made its way into the interiors. For a while now, I had wanted to see Edathua. It was a trip beginning in a conversation in Chennai.

The shelf with medals (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Amateur runners love their medals. Some hang them from display stands, a collection growing over time. Never before had I seen a shelf like the one I saw that evening in Chennai. It was full of medals. To one side was the coveted Arjuna Award. At my request, Sebastian Xavier posed for a photo beside the shelf. He was easy to talk to. But getting him to talk about swimming wasn’t easy; it appeared a business he was done and over with. He enjoyed more his daily sessions on the shuttle court. We were first at his office at the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Perambur and then his house nearby. That’s where the conversation began; it continued to conclusion and curiosity for Edathua, on a ride into town on his newly acquired SUV.

Sebastian is among India’s best swimmers. He was the country’s fastest swimmer from 1989 to 2000 and his national record of 22.89 seconds in the 50m freestyle stood for thirteen years from 1997 to 2010. Born 1970, he grew up in Edathua. It was an ecosystem dominated by water. The Pamba River nearby was a natural swimming pool in Sebastian’s childhood. In land with a river, pond or canal at every turn, swimming was as normal for a person born here, as walking was for those in dry cities averse to wetting feet. “ It was routine to be out and if you found a river or water body across your path, strip, hold your clothes high in one hand and swim across,’’ Sebastian said. There was also another reason for the widespread and maybe, enforced acquaintance with water. This was a region that flooded easily in the monsoon. While these days, you have roads and multiple means to be saved, in days gone by, one had to take care of oneself. Knowing how to swim was hence a skill, core to survival. Sebastian’s father was a school teacher; his mother, a housewife. The family was large – they were eleven children, Sebastian was the tenth. The family house has swimming depicted on its gate. There’s a reason for it. While Sebastian and his younger brother, Antony S. Manamel, became well known competitive swimmers, his father in his schooldays had participated in swimming competitions. Swimming ran in the family. “ In my father’s schooldays, the prizes given out used to be a comb, a soap box…’’ Sebastian said. His own first swimming competition happened once he joined college; St Aloysius College in Edathua.

Edathua / Kuttanad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Edathua / Kuttanad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Edathua / Kuttanad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Edathua / Kuttanad (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Kuttanad straddles three districts – Alappuzha, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta. Some 28 kilometers away from Kottayam town is Pala, one of the biggest settlements in the district. A prominent college here is St Thomas College. From St Aloysius in Edathua, “ Antony sir’’ used to take Sebastian and others to St Thomas College. “ They had a 50m pool. It had no tiles or anything like that. But it was the first swimming pool I saw in my life,’’ Sebastian said. St Aloysius didn’t have a pool. What it had instead was a kulam, which is how ponds are called in Kerala. Training in Edathua was a combination of swimming in the college pond and swimming in the Pamba River. The latter used to be periodically overseen by T.J. Thomas Thoppil, who was a coach with the university. Talent can’t be held down by limitations in local ecosystem. Sebastian gained selection to the university swimming team. Interestingly, his family was not happy with this development. It was his brother-in-law, Appream Thundiyil, who gave him the moral support and confidence to proceed. At an inter-university meet in Kolkata, the team Sebastian was part of, got silver in relay.

The Pamba River near Sebastian’s house (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Theoretically, freestyle in swimming signifies the freedom to choose any stroke style for competitive swimming. The style most used is the front crawl, which delivers the greatest speed. Sebastian’s preferred genre has always been freestyle. It was nearest to the sort of swimming he grew up with and which, he could refine. There was no experienced swimming coach constantly observing wards and deciding what style suited who best. He went along with freestyle and ended up recognized in it. The choice of 50m freestyle however, was due to a specific reason. Fifty meters is the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It is one lap. Longer distances in pool based-swimming are done using multiple laps. Sebastian had a weakness. He couldn’t efficiently somersault in water at the end of a lap and commence the next one. He would instead touch the pool’s end with his hand and turn around. Poor technique means time lost and in competition, efficiency and time are everything. On the other hand, compared to others around, he was blistering fast in a first lap. That’s how his shift to 50m freestyle, swimming’s equivalent of track and field’s 100m-dash, occurred. For many years now, Kerala has churned out good swimmers. The country’s first sub-one minute finish in 100m freestyle came from Kerala.

In 1987, Sebastian emerged first in 50m freestyle at the junior nationals. A year later, he joined the Indian Railways as an employee. His first national camp in swimming was after he joined the Railways. In 1988, he placed second in the nationals behind Khajan Singh. Hailing from Delhi, Khajan Singh was India’s most prominent swimmer at that time. He was known to sweep medals at the national competitions he participated in. In 1986, he also won a silver medal at the Asian Games, the first time since 1951 that India won a podium finish in swimming at the event. For Sebastian, 1989 was the turning point. That year at the SAF Games in Islamabad, Sebastian beat Khajan Singh to win gold. From then on for several years, Sebastian dominated the pool in disciplines he participated in, much the same way Khajan Singh had done earlier.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Sebastian’s chosen discipline – the 50m freestyle – has a history of presence at the Olympics that is younger than him. According to information on the Internet, at the games of the Third Olympiad held in 1904 in St Louis, USA, there was a 50-yard (45.72m) freestyle race in swimming, held in an artificial lake at Forest Park. Although Zoltan Halmaj of Hungary won the race, an American judge declared Scott Leary of the US winner, leading to a dispute. In the re-race, Halmaj won by a full stroke. The modern swimming pool – made to Olympic dimension – marked its debut at the 1908 London Olympic Games. Despite 50-yard race four years earlier in St Louis, there was no 50m sprint event in the pool at London. In fact, there was none for the next 80 years. Then in 1988, when Sebastian was 18 years old and joining the Railways as a promising swimmer from Kerala, the 50m freestyle was formally introduced at the Seoul Olympic Games. That year, 23 year-old US swimmer, Mathew Nicholas Biondi (Matt Biondi), picked up the first Olympic gold in 50m freestyle with a new world record of 22.14 seconds. But the man whose name would be most associated with the discipline was the Russian swimmer Alexander Popov aka “Russian Rocket.’’  He struck gold at the 1992 and 1996 games. Wikipedia has compiled the last 26 instances of world records established in 50m freestyle. It starts with the record set in 1976 by Jonty Skinner of South Africa; 23.86 seconds and ended (at the time of writing this article) with the 2009 timing of Brazil’s Cesar Cielo, 20.91 seconds. For eight years from 2000 onward, the record set by Alexander Popov ruled. Then over 2008-2009, timings sharply dipped to the current world record of 20.91 seconds. This dip coincided with the introduction of polyurethane swim suits, which have since been banned from competitions.

At 46 years of age in 2017, Sebastian Xavier is still fit and well built. He sports a shaven head, something he probably made a regular practice of, given he was losing hair due to extended exposure to chlorine at Indian swimming pools. Although above average in height, he isn’t what you would call – tall. If you probe excellence in sports, it can at times be rather disheartening. As competition heated up, sport started to ruthlessly favor those with physical gifts suited for it. The most obvious example is basketball; it has become a game of giants. In news from the swimming pool, the first depiction of a man built for the sport was probably the highly successful German swimmer Michael Gross. He was six feet, seven inches tall. More importantly, his long arms gave him a total span of 2.13 meters (six feet nine inches) that he was affectionately called `The Albatross’ by the media. By the time we reach Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer yet, physical features are even more supportive of chosen sport. Phelps has a torso that is longer than his legs, which coupled with his big, paddle like-feet and reach, make him a phenomenon in the pool. Matt Biondi who won the first Olympic gold in 50m freestyle was six feet seven inches tall; Alexander Popov stood six feet five inches. The least Sebastian could have done in his days in the pool at the vanguard of a ruthlessness emerging in sport, was train hard and focus on technique. He had the talent. He needed a good coach; someone who noticed where Sebastian was placed in the sport and devised the best possible approach. In 1990, he experienced the benefits of good coaching first hand. That year, according to Sebastian, a German coach had come to train Indian swimmers at the invitation of Sports Authority of India (SAI). Thanks to that individual, Sebastian succeeded in cutting off at least 10 seconds from his timing in the 200m freestyle.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Unfortunately, the German coach was more aberration than new trend. Tracking the classical Indian story of how we treat the talented in our midst, Sebastian had to continue self-made. Years before, nobody advised him to shift from 100m to 50m; he noticed his limitation and decided to switch. Having moved to 50m freestyle, focused coaching still eluded him. Being a sprint event, the 50m freestyle is quite unforgiving. Sample for instance, Sebastian’s national record of 22.89 seconds in the 50m freestyle and Biondi’s first Olympic gold in that discipline with 22.14 seconds. There are dozens of top notch swimmers losing out in those sub seconds. That’s how closely placed and closely fought the 50m freestyle is. If you look at the discipline closely, there is the half of power packed swimming in water and there is the less highlighted half, but one that is absolutely critical – the dive into the pool, which is wholly a case of powerful launch from land, streamlined flight through the air and equally streamlined entry into water. “ The points to focus on are – good start and good finish,’’ Sebastian said. Unfortunately in Sebastian’s best days, there was no concept of specialization in Indian swimming. This is a trend in Indian athletics at a larger level. Country, state and employers – they all want to extract the maximum number of medals out of their athletes. Inevitably this results in athletes breaking specialization and participating in disciplines close to what one is doing. Medals won justify the practice. It is a vicious cycle. It is a completely different matter, if you view this from the perspective of training. To understand the specific training needs of 50m freestyle, one has to first accept that the 50m freestyle is different from other disciplines in swimming. If you don’t notice distinct disciplines in the first place, how will you notice the specific training needs in each? Incredibly at training camps, according to Sebastian, his daily swimming regimen and that of someone attempting the 1500m freestyle discipline; were kept the same. One was clearly sprint; the other clearly endurance – yet there was little distinction by officialdom.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

At the 1994 national swimming competition in Goa, Sebastian participated in eight disciplines winning gold in all. His timing in the 50m freestyle qualified him for participation at the upcoming 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, USA. He trained at Delhi’s Talkatora stadium. He trained as hard as he could. Yet again, he had no personal coach; none to point out his strengths and weaknesses in the pool. “ When you train for the Olympics, you should train with athletes whose performance pulls up your own. I was the national champion. I trained for Atlanta with the Delhi district swimming team for company,’’ Sebastian said. At the Olympics, Sebastian was eliminated in the first round itself. The eventual gold medalist in 50m freestyle at Atlanta was Alexander Popov. He became the only male swimmer in Olympic history to defend titles in both 50m and 100m freestyle disciplines. Popov had won gold in these disciplines at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics too. Participating in the Olympics is typically the pinnacle of any athlete’s life. It is so for Sebastian too. Except; he doesn’t talk much about it. I fished for details. I flashed that classic journalist question from our TV ridden-times: what did it feel like to be at the Olympics? “ I became an Olympian. I wasn’t otherwise satisfied,’’ he said. Asked what kept him going for so long despite the disadvantages he faced, he said, “ in the initial years it was tapping into a God given ability to swim well and leveraging the natural affection for water, life in Edathua and Kuttanad gave me. Later, there was support from family and my employer, the Indian Railways; every time you won something big there was an increment or promotion at work. I was thus moving from one competition to the next. Olympics was never in the plan. It just happened. But the reason I maintained my good performance in India for so long is that once you are national champion, you have to work hard to stay so. Those in second, third or fourth position have nothing to lose and only being better to gain. When you are on top it is that much more a challenge and you have to sweat it out to keep your lead. ”

It is now many years since Sebastian retired from competitive swimming. Back in Edathua, he has built a house next to his family home. The last nationals Sebastian took part in, was at Kolkata in 2003. He has also stopped swimming for his employer, the Railways. Besides the lack of a good coach, the varying standards of Indian swimming pools (now it is better) have taken a toll on him. In his time, pools rarely adhered to required water temperature and chlorine levels. High chlorine levels resulted in hair loss and affected Sebastian’s skin and teeth. During the peak of his career, he used to swim up to 10 kilometers in the morning and 10 kilometers in the evening. For five years, he played the role of a coach in swimming for the Railways. He is not keen on that role too. In the SUV he was driving through Chennai’s evening traffic, he was happiest talking of his daily rendezvous with the shuttle court. Swimming seemed distant, almost locked away.

The church at Edathua (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The snake boat `Karuvatta’ (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The bus to Edathua rattled on through the countryside.

Soon after we turned off NH 47 at Haripad, the geography Sebastian grew up in began revealing itself. A sense of low lying land took over for not only was the scenery increasingly featuring canals in it but most of the land around had also become giant puddles of water in Kerala’s season of rain. The courtyard of houses held a film of water, the land outside its gates had collected water and the road, the bus was on, stayed above it all like the snout and spine of a partially submerged crocodile. The landscape was lush green. Roughly an hour later, I passed St Aloysius College. It was still early days for the year’s newbies at college. At its gate, welcoming the freshly arrived was a picture of Che Guevara and the Malayalam term: chenkottah, meaning red fort. It was the handiwork of the left wing faction in student politics. I got off at the main junction in Edathua; Kerala lad lost to other parts of India and returned home in middle age, dressed for the rains in a pair of shorts. Around me, the world moved in mundu and pants. Sudhakaran, who came on his scooter to take me around for an Edathua-darshan, later told Sebastian: a person wearing shorts had come. Had he asked me, I would have explained: journalists start out in pants; as you freelance all you can afford is shorts.

It was a fine morning. My introduction as adult to Kuttanad could not have been better. Sudhakaran was a fine guide and being a political activist (I understood that later), someone who knew many people around. Our first halt was the local church, the picture of which I had seen on the Internet. Then, as we got back on the scooter and decided to target a place with the proverbial Kuttanad scenery of canoe and canal for a photograph, I beheld for the first time at close quarters, a snake boat. And it wasn’t just any, it was Karuvatta; a name I remembered well from news reports and commentaries of boat races in the past. The first boat race of the season was around the corner and the snake boat was being readied for it. These boats are a matter of pride locally. They are seen as mascots of a given locality and usually, owned fractionally by people from there. Sebastian’s family for instance, owned a share of St George. For the next hour or so, we rode through classic Kuttanad scenery; spent time watching the Pamba River from a small jetty on its banks (“ see, you must highlight that, this is what we do now,’’ Sudhakaran said angrily, as a plastic bag thrown into the river floated by), beheld the empty, long shed that protected St George (like Karuvatta, it too was out that day) and visited the house of Vincent with its fish farm. Seemingly content in that idyllic setting of green and waters holding a mirror to the monsoon sky, Vincent said he split his time between Oman, where he worked and Edathua.

Sudhakaran, Sebastian’s friend and my guide at Edathua (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Before he took leave from near the Edathua bus depot, Sudhakaran took out a framed photo of his Chennai based-friend, at whose request he had played guide for me. The photo was part of a newspaper report celebrating a locality’s famous son. Sudhakaran had cut out the newspaper report and framed it. Earlier that morning, not far from the Pamba, he had shown me two houses. The older one seemed locked; the new one appeared completed. The former had a metal gate with figures of swimmers on it; the latter had the Olympic rings at its top. That noon, I boarded a bus to Alappuzha via Thakazhi and Ambalappuzha. In my mind, I had some idea of the place that shaped one of India’s best swimmers.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

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