India’s Sharath Gayakwad will be the first to tell you - a lot will be at stake on 18 October when the 2014 Asian Para Games kick off in Incheon, South Korea.
The 23-year-old swimmer will be looking to defend his No. 1 ranking in Asia in the 100m backstroke and 100m butterfly S8, and his performances will be crucial to determining whether he retires or carries on to the 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships and Rio 2016.
“I am not sure yet about Rio 2016 as I have been planning to retire at the end of the year,” Gayakwad said. “I have yet to decide if I will be taking a year off or taking up retirement. If I take part at the 2016 Paralympics, the Incheon Games will definitely play a big role in my confidence to train for Rio and maybe finish on the podium.”
Half the battle when it comes to preparing for any event is the training aspect, and for Gayakwad, it is no different. He is currently training hard to have the stamina to compete in all seven of his events.
Despite the fact that India is not traditionally known to be a swimming country, and awareness of para-swimming is low, Gayakwad has managed to train successfully in the same pool for almost 14 years.
“The training facilities have improved over the years and the support I get from the club is immense,” Gayakwad said.
His coach, John Christopher, has also been a big part of his success. Despite not knowing a great deal about para swimming when he first met Gayakwad, their relationship and training has evolved significantly over the years.
“He (Christopher) did a lot of research and made sure I was comfortable and treated equally among everyone which has helped me over the years,” Gayakwad said. “Today my coach understands me and knows exactly how well I can swim and how much I can push.”
Earlier this year at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Great Britain, Gayakwad just missed out on the podium, placing fourth in the 200m individual medley S8.
One of his idols growing up in the sport was five-time Olympic gold medallist Ian Thorpe.
Should Gayakwad win gold at Incheon, he would be the first Indian swimmer to do so, following the footsteps of Thorpe who was a pioneer throughout his career.
“Although my main event is 100m breaststroke, I have managed to qualify for the Games in seven events and the top rankings in few of them,” Gayakwad said. “It will be a big test for me and a matter of prestige for me to finish as No.1 at the end of the Games.”
Incheon 2014 takes place from 18-24 October and will feature around 5,000 athletes competing across 23 sports.
The 2015 IPC Swimming World Championships will see 650 swimmers from 50 countries gather at the same pool as Glasgow 2014 from 13-19 July.