The swimming fraternity in India literally thanked the Union Sports Ministry for clearing a long due when it decided to decorate illustrious coach S Pradeep Kumar with the Dronacharya award last month.

Such has been his influence in swimming for the last three decades. As the head coach of India’s premier swimming school, the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre in Bengaluru, Pradeep has groomed more than 8,000 competitive swimmers, who went on to clinch 4,000 medals, of which 1,800 were of golden hue, in various national competitions conducted by the Swimming Federation of India. His constant monitoring and training helped his wards erase 250 national marks from the record books. Above all, he was able to produce five Olympians and four Arjuna awardees.

He helped swimmers from other Indian states during the national camps prior to international swimming competitions.

The coach, however, did not consider it as a personal achievement. Instead, he dedicated the award to BAC and its talented swimmers. “BAC provided me an excellent training facility, while swimmers followed my instructions to win honours,” said a modest Pradeep. “So I owe this achievement to BAC, my home for the last 29 years, and my swimmers.”

S Pradeep Kumar (centre) at the Olympics Village in Rio along with Indian swimmers Sajan Prakash (left) and Shivani Kataria (right).

The early years

Coaching was a natural choice for Pradeep, who hails from Nanniyode village in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala.

Nanniyode, known as Kerala’s swimming hub, has produced many talented swimmers. Pradeep too began as a swimmer and trained under a Kerala Sports Council coach in the village pond. When the coach failed to turn up, Pradeep donned the trainer’s mantle and initiated many children into the world of swimming.

Following his failure to clear the Pre-degree (equivalent to plus-two) examination, Pradeep began to spend much of his time in the pond. He also did many jobs to make an independent living.

“I used to load huge pieces of logs onto the trucks at that time. It was a distressing period in my life. But the difficulties made me mentally strong. I was ready to face any situations in life,” said Pradeep as he took a trip down memory lane.

It was during this time that Pradeep realised his acting potential. “The Venus Arts and Sports Club in our village, where I was a member, staged dramas penned by left-leaning writers. Many looked at us with suspicion and alleged that we were Naxalites,” he recalled.

From acting to coaching

His life took a different turn when he got admission at the St Thomas College Sports Hostel in Pala in Kottayam. “I was influenced by the methods of my coach Joy Joseph. After completing graduation, I went straight to the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. A year later, I joined BAC as a coach.”

According to him, BAC has got the best training facilities in India. “We have swimming pools, gymnasium and physiotherapist. However, even the best in India are nowhere near international standards. If we want to win medals in international meets we have to improve our facilities,” pointed out the veteran coach.

Pradeep is known as a tough taskmaster with a knack to inculcate discipline in his trainees. “I won’t allow athletes to enter the pool if they come late for training. My tough attitude helps my pupils understand the value of time. I always work with 100 percent dedication and my trainees know it better.”

Though he trains elite swimmers, he shares valuable tips with fellow coaches who look after the junior programme. “If we need good swimmers at the senior level, you need to provide excellent training to the junior swimmers,” reasoned Pradeep.

The International Swimming Federation and the International Olympic Committee also realised his potential and deputed him to conduct coaching clinics in Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Pradeep with his pupils at the training pool.

Constantly learning

There was a time, not so long ago, when coaches in India believed that swimming was an aerobic sport. They had limited knowledge about strength training and supplements. “At that time, the BAC management sent me to the United States in 1989 to attend the American Swimming Coaches Association training course and learn the trends,” stated Pradeep. “I even got an opportunity to interact with the Miami University Team and its coach Jack Nelson.”

A person who believes that coaching is a continuous learning process, Pradeep did a post graduate diploma in Sports Management from Alagappa University in Karaikudi and completed a Master’s degree in Sports from the Tamil Nadu Physical Education and Sports University. He holds the distinction of being the first Indian coach to complete ASCA level 1 to 5 certification, which is considered the best in the world.

“Even now, I don’t know even 1% of swimming training. It is a vast subject. That is why I wanted to continue my studies,” said the coach who plans to begin his doctorate soon.

Why no Olympic medals?

It is question that Pradeep confronts after every Olympics. He feels sad about it, but says critics should check the facts before blaming the athletes and coaches.”We have to compare our facilities with that of medal-winning nations. Look at the investment made by swimming powerhouses, US and Australia in their infrastructure and talents,” argued the swimming coach.

He continued, “Besides, we have a handful of swimmers. We should have a huge talent pool. If we need to groom a swimmer who can do 100 metres freestyle in under 50 seconds, we should have minimum 100 swimmers who can swim 100 metre in one minute.”

“We should have specialists in stroke technique, videography, sports nutrition specialist, sports psychologist. A coach is just a cog in the wheel,” he summed up.

Though swimmers who trained under him believe that the award came late, Pradeep says he is not bothered about the timing. “Dronacharya is a great honour and I am happy to receive it for my past services. Now I have to live up to the billing and work hard to help our swimmers win medals in international competitions.”