Representing India at the Olympics, like for several others, is a dream come true for swimmer Maana Patel, but it’s a reality the youngster would have struggled to even imagine four years ago when she was at her lowest, nursing a shoulder injury and battling depression.
Maana’s tryst with swimming began when her mother enrolled her for summer classes in 2008 in the hopes of improving her daughter's appetite. And the eight-year-old took to it as a duck takes to water. It wasn’t long before she started creating waves with her performance.
“As a child, I was very lanky and my appetite was poor. So, that's the reason why my mom put me in a summer batch in 2008, thinking that I’d play in the water for some time, come out and eat properly. I enjoyed swimming and everything fell into place,” Maana told PTI.
“Slowly, I started to take part in club level competitions. People saw me, race and then they were like ‘she swims really well’,” she added.
Maana, who qualified for the women’s 100m backstroke event at the Tokyo Games through a “Universality quota”, burst into the Indian swimming scene as a 13-year-old, setting three national backstroke records.
“In 2013, I broke the Indian record. I was even faster than the boys my age.”
It was all going well for the back stroker, who won six medals at the South Asian Games in 2016. But all changed when Maana injured her left shoulder in 2017.
“I had a labrum tear in my left shoulder so the entire 2017 I took a step back. I withdrew from all the races and I was just focusing on my rehab.”
Maana had recently moved to Mumbai from Ahmedabad with her mother, out of her comfort zone. During her rehab, she was plagued with self-doubt, she lost about six kilograms. The 21-year-old has spoken about her struggle during this time eloquently in a TEDxYouth talk.
“I had to start from zero, so it was very, very frustrating and very consuming-- mentally and emotionally. I threw tantrums. There was a point that I really wanted to quit swimming.
"I was young and I didn't know how to handle the injury. I was super depressed."
That was when Maana’s mother stepped in with some advice that changed the Ahmedabad-born swimmers outlook to life. “Mom and I come as a package. She's played a major role in my success. Her lifestyle has also changed because of me. She travels with me, almost everywhere. She's seen me, she knew what I was going through.”
“She told me ‘if you give up now you will probably form this habit of giving up and that's what you will do for the rest of your life. This problem is not a big problem, everybody's working to get you back everybody's trying to make you stronger and fitter, all you need to do is believe in yourself'.”
Maana returned to competitive swimming in 2018. At the senior nationals she not only won three gold medals, but also bettered her national record in the women’s 100m backstroke event.
A year later at the Asian Age Group Championship, she returned with a haul of six medals, including a gold and bronze each and four silver.
Excited to compete alongside the world's best swimmer, Maana is hopeful of improving her personal best time at the Olympics.
“It's always been my dream and finally that's coming true so honoured and humbled to represent my country in the Olympics. It’s an incredible feeling.”