As soon as Virdhawal Khade touched the wall to pip India’s upcoming swimming sensation Srihari Nataraj for the 50m freestyle gold in the 37th National Games on Tuesday night, the 32-year-old Maharashtra swimmer could not stop himself from pumping the air with gusto.
It was quite clear from the celebration that the gold medal winning performance meant something more for the man who became the youngest Indian swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games back in 2008. He had then ended India’s 24-year wait for a swimming medal at the Asian Games in 2010 with a bronze in 50m butterfly.
And Khade, popularly known as Veer on the swimming circuit, revealed that the National Games are mostly likely to be his last outing as a competitive swimmer in India and he wanted to end things on a high.
“What is also special about this medal is that I won my first national medal back in 2001 in Goa and today it feels like life’s come full circle with the Gold medal at my last Nationals again in Goa.
“Back then, I could never have imagined I would become the swimmer that I am today, so I really want to thank all the coaches and all the people who have been a part of this journey,” said one of India’s most decorated swimmers.
Khade had announced his arrival on the national scene at the Junior Nationals in Margao in 2001 and broke multiple national records in the years to come. The demands of his job with the Maharashtra government followed by a knee injury meant that the Kolhapur-born swimmer lost out a few years when at his peak.
However, he made a strong comeback in 2018 and went on to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Khade got emotional as he reflected on his journey from being a talented youngster back in 2001 to returning to Goa as veteran before explaining his decision of stopping soon.
“At heart, I still feel young, but the body is feeling tired now. Too many years have gone by, and I’ve swum too much in this span. I don’t recover as quickly as I once used to.
Earlier I could do 10 events without breaking a sweat, but even 3 events feel like a tall order now. I still enjoy the nerves I get before the race though. I don’t think that feeling will ever leave me.”
“This was my last event in India. You might see me again as a coach someday, but this was my last competitive race here for sure,” said Khade, who had started coaching youngsters in Mumbai when he was recovering from his injury.
Khade maintains that a medal for his home state to sign off will always be close to his heart. “It is always special to win a medal for Maharashtra. Maharashtra made me who I am. It has given me an identity. No matter where I compete, I have always felt the support of crores of people behind me from home. We are here in Goa, and it still feels like being at home as we are very close to here.”
For an athlete, the question of finding the right time to call an end to their career always remains a matter of great personal deliberation. While some make the call when they can no longer perform at the level they once used to, some prefer to finish with one final flourish on the big stage.
For Khade, signing off by breaking his own National Games record in his most dominant event seems as poetic an ending as any.