Bengaluru, August 6: The queue for a personalised autograph signed by Sandeep Sejwal surprised the swimmer himself. Boys and girls lined up in front of an attractive standee of Sejwal holding a bronze medal at the Kensington Pool in Ulsoor and the crowd only got bigger once Nisha Millet, a former international swimmer, announced that Sejwal had come in third at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games 50m breast stroke event.
"It's wonderful to see a swimmer get this sort of attention," remarked Sejwal's contemporary, Sandeep Nagaranthal, now part of the Speedo India team.
And timing of Sejwal hogging the spotlight couldn't be any better - we're a few days away from the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta (beginning from August 18) and the 29-year-old says it could be his swansong.
"Right now, mentally, I am looking at just the Asian Games," Sejwal said on the sidelines of the Speedo Invitational Swimming Championship. "Seriously not thinking about what's after. Depending on my performance at the Asian Games, if I get selected for other events, I might continue. But to me, it seems like, at the international stage, it could be the last. So I definitely want to end it on a high note. More than that, I would like to enjoy the racing experience once more."
Sejwal's form ahead of the 2018 Asian Games couldn't be any better too. He bagged a gold in the 50m breast stroke event at the 14th Singapore National Swimming Championships in June, earning his slot in Jakarta with a timing of 27.59 seconds. That apart, another Indian, Virdhawal Khade, upset 2016 Rio Olympics champion Joseph Schooling in 100m freestyle, livening up the mood of the entire Indian contingent.
"To win a medal at international stage is always a big motivation for any athlete," Sejwal said. "That win came at the right time, when I needed one, with just a month and a half before the Asian Games and you win a competition like that it definitely a very good motivator.
"Moreover, beating a world champion, an Olympic champion, motivates you. If all the teammates are watching, they will know that it is possible to beat an Olympic champion when he is not in his best shape. It generates positive vibes. If one can do it, why can't the other."
The bronze medal four years ago was a moment of crowning glory for Indian swimming. Before that, Khade had bagged a bronze in the 50m butterfly event during the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, which ended a 24-year medal drought. Having these two - and Olympian Sajan Prakash - leading the charge at the 2018 Asian Games brightens India's hopes of a medal again.
The Japanese swimmers, especially 2014 Asian Games silver medallist Yasuhiro Koseki, will prove tough to handle. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, have an Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin, also the defending championship in the event. But it can be done, says Sejwal, adding that it all depends on how each one battles himself.
"I am just trying to replicate the same performance and try and go faster by a tenth of a second in Asian Games," Sejwal said. "My biggest competition is myself because at this age to compete at that level is very difficult and (it's tough) to train for such an event. So I'm focused on recovery and so far the preparation has been going very well so hopefully I can better my performance in the Asian Games.
"That medal was four years ago and this event comes once in four years and there has been a lot of swimmers who have been swimming really well. I wouldn't say it (the bronze medal in 2014) gives me an edge but it definitely gives me confidence to race against the same countries that I have raced before. I have been tracking my performances along with the other swimmers from Japan and China so I think this year, everyone is going neck to neck. When it comes to such events, whoever handles the pressure better will be better."