There was a time last year, when Rujuta Khade was left to wonder how she managed to pick up such a major injury. A back spasm was later confirmed by tests to be four disc bulges and scoliosis.

“I’ve never really had any back issues in the past,” she said to Scroll, as she recalled the injury. “It was very random and it did take [me and husband Virdhawal Khade] by shock.”

But the swimmer recovered. And last week, at the Senior National Aquatic Championships in Hyderabad, she broke a 20-year-old national record.

Competing for Maharashtra, the 27-year-old bettered Olympian Shikha Tandon’s 50m freestyle record of 26.61s, setting the new mark at 26.47 seconds.

Virdhawal wasn’t far behind, as he won the 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly events. But with Rujuta’s latest record, India’s swimming power couple have a firm grip over the shortest freestyle race.

“I was always very keen on getting that record,” Rujuta said. “It’s stood for so long. I did come close to breaking it in 2019. Even after that, a lot of people got close to breaking it. But it just feels like it was destined to be broken by me. I’m very grateful that I could finally get it.”

This new accolade comes just a year after Rujuta’s injury.

Virdhawal, a 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist, recalled how conflicted he was about his wife getting back to competitive swimming.

“I remember when she was trying to get back in the pool,” said the 31-year-old. “Being supportive is one thing, but as a husband, I was telling her that I don’t want her to swim. Because I was a little worried knowing that this thing can only get worse.

“There is no permanent fix for it [but] she was a little adamant about it. And I’m happy to see that all the hard work has paid off. She is where she wants to be with her swimming. I’m definitely happy helping her get better.”

The support that Rujuta has received from Virdhawal has been a common element throughout their relationship. While Rujuta is more reserved and even shy, Virdhawal is vocal and outgoing. But both of them know what it feels like to return to competing after a long break.

Virdhawal had taken a hiatus from swimming and chose to focus instead on his work as a tehsildar (revenue collector) for the state government – a job he took up in 2012. But he made a comeback back in 2017 and ended up qualifying for the 2018 Asian Games.

At the continental event in Jakarta, he even suffered the hearbreak of missing out on a medal in the 50m freestyle event by 0.01 seconds to finish fourth.

Yet last week, the couple did get to rejoice in Rujuta’s new national record.

Watching from the sidelines though, Virdhawal remembered not being overly vocal in his support.

He described being in the pool as “a form of meditation because when your head is underwater, all you can hear is yourself breathing and the bubbles in the water.”

“I wasn’t cheering for her,” he said. “I don’t know, I was doing it inside but I wasn’t vocal about it. But obviously whenever she is racing, I want her to win. And this time she happened to win because of her hard work.”

Virdhawal and Rujuta at the 2019 Senior National Aquatic Championships (Courtesy: Virdhawal Khade/Instagram)

Return from injury

Back injuries are pretty common among swimmers. But Rujuta’s injury was serious and she knew there would not be quick fixes for it – it would be something which she would have to live with.

“The doctors that I met and even my physio – she was the one who assured me that I would be able to swim,” Rujuta said. “She and I worked very closely together over this past year, guiding me of what to do and what not to do in and out of the pool,” she continued.

As part of her recovery, Rujuta had to make the tough decision of cutting down on the number of events she would participate in.

In Hyderabad, she swam in only four events – in the 50m butterfly and freestyle and two relays races. And she returned with three gold medals, barely a year after battling a major injury.

When asked about getting back to swimming after their marriage in 2017, Virdhawal explained that Rujuta got back to the sport as a way to cut weight.

“It so happened that whatever she was doing in the gym and in the pool, she just started swimming really fast,” he said. “From [long distance races] she shifted to a sprint freestyle.”

Just getting started

Despite the knowledge gained from spending so much time in the pool, both Virdhawal and Rujuta have actively worked to make swimming just another facet of their life together. With his job as a tehsildar and her job as a strength and conditioning coach, the Khades are well aware that swimming is not what they only want to be known for.

“Our happiness doesn’t depend on swimming,” she said. “We pretty much have the same goals. So, to go and chase the goals together is what I would want.”

Virdhawal has been named in the swimming squad for upcoming Asian Games, scheduled to be held in September-October in Hangzhou, China, and has mentioned that the next year is most likely going to be his last in swimming.

“I have been swimming for 27 or 28 years now and that’s quite a lot,” he said. “Mentally, it is not as challenging as it used to be.”

“I think after this, I will definitely look for a new challenge in the form of coaching. I think I can help the next generation of swimmers go on to the Olympics and international competitions and do well for India.”

Virdhawal is already undergoing certification courses as part of the qualification process to become a coach. On the other hand, Rujuta is working with athletes and is eager to impart her knowledge to her juniors in the sport.

For the Khades, the sport may not be the only thing in their lives. But for the the power couple in Indian swimming, they are only getting started in their journey together.