High Court Training for Silver
A different way to train for Silver against all odds
The Story of Varsha Gautham and Sweta Shervagar and their battles through the High Court of Delhi to achieve sailing glory for India
This is a true story. Whilst being longer than the usual blog we feel it is a story worth telling. For anyone outside India you may recognize some similarities between countries, but in my long experience I have never come across such obstruction by any federation and individuals anywhere in the world. The fact that the team ended with a silver medal against such obstructive behavior from their own federation is a testament to talent, determination, resilience and indomitable spirit such that I have seen nowhere else in the world. So this is the story of an extraordinary achievement. We hope that you both enjoy it and find it inspirational.
Imagine the scene: A federation in disruption with several months of inactivity after a resource starved failure at qualifying for the Olympics 2016, with the youngest sailing medal winner at the last Asian Games and first woman medal winner left out of the A squad on the “judgement” of a new coach, despite the fact that she remains unbeaten by any other Indian women’s team since the age of 13. The writing was on the wall already that things were far from straight. Varsha Gautham, with a new crew, Sweta, was beating their opposition in three quarters of the domestic practice races, yet the assessment was that the other team got the major funding. This was the thin end of the wedge….
Varsha and Sweta were asked to sign a sailor agreement which meant they were not allowed outside coaching, but had limited access to the YAI coach, who clearly wanted them to fail to justify his selection. At this point Varsha and Sweta decided that they would make their own way, and set about securing a sponsor. Varsha moved to Mumbai, where commerce is rife and prime as sponsorship market, and after several months, With the guidance of our CEO and performance directors and with the help of Amish Ved, a man dedicated to the advancement of Indian sailing, they found a sponsor, Mr. Vikram Ghopardi, to set things rolling.
The goals were set and whilst international sailing in the FX class is super tough, all goals were achieved. The team rose to 50th in the world after 3 regattas, and then came the domestic Asian Games trials at Chennai. The hostility of YAI was apparent. The sailor’s agreement they had been asked to sign specifies to treat all opposition with sportsmanlike behavior. They were informed in advance by a contact in YAI that there was a huge chance that if they arrived early to practice that their boat would be sabotaged. We were also told that as a foreigner, I would not get a pass into the secure port to coach the team. Whilst these warning were heeded and I decided to stay home and “skype coach”, when the girls finally got their boat to TNSA and went into the port, not a soul talked to them, and eye contact was limited; so much for sportsmanship. The event was full of little surprises, like being rammed by a 49er in the second race, a DNE for touching a mark which was not fully witnessed (normally disqualified if witnessed and certain), and other decisions against, plus the federation coach buzzing around every mistake by the girls with his video camera at a distance of a few meters. This led to the first domestic defeat by the girls in 7 years, and they came a close second.
The mental damage was obvious. The train had threatened to come off the rails. Unfortunately, at the same time the sponsorship money ran out. Two weeks later we competed in the Medemblick regatta, and retained our unbeaten international record. There was a lot of sacrifice which went into the Medemblick event, and the mental recuperation was the goal of the regatta. Having been competing for speed with the top boats in Palma 6 weeks before, we were struggling. As the regatta wore on, the pace and mental approach got better. Tick, job done, but not back to where we were prior to the Chennai disaster.
The next job was to get the boat to Indonesia. The team had two second hand boats. The European one was 6 years old, past its best but good condition. The Indian one was four years old and lightly raced, at the stage where a top team would sell it as losing its edge. This was the boat we had to get to Indonesia to compete in the final and deciding selection regatta, the Asian Sailing Championships. The selection procedure was clearly stated: the top 2 boats from Chennai went to Indonesia under government funding, and the winner in the Asian Sailing Championships would secure the selection for the Asian Games place. The YAI told the team with 20 hours to go that the container had to be loaded with a full inventory of equipment. This was not possible, with some spares still in Mumbai and the team on the way back to Mumbai from Chennai. The girls then found themselves deprived of transport to the selection regatta. Their response was to spend the next three weeks raising money and persuading an airline to reduce air freight to manageable costs. They achieved this. With the boat arriving the last week of Ramadan they were told that customs clearance would take about 10 days, which would put clearance as the first day of the regatta. They flew out themselves immediately, and badgered and pleaded with the airport handlers and customs for two days, and got it delivered to the regatta site at the end of the second day. They paid for police escort as per regulations, but instead of the several hundred dollars required by the official handling agent, they paid around thirty dollars. This led to another scam being identified – we knew shipping costs to Jakarta and delivery to destination was available for around 1.5 lakh (approx. $2,250) but the official agents price was around $18,000 – a sum that clearly the YAI must have paid to the official agent for each of their three containers. The shipping agent was found to be related to the chairman of Sailing Performance Development Committee of YAI. Some government money apparently not finding its rightful value? The Taiwan team and Qatar refused point blank to pay these scam prices, so the competition was diluted.
Having arrived at the site with a week to go, I flew in for the last few days of training and the regatta. No Indian coach boat was available for my use, and the number of suitable boats available was non-existent. I was able to get on the water for few days, and it was terribly expensive for unsuitable boats. Despite this we managed a silver in the regatta, again a place in front of the other leading Indian team. The problem was that just before the regatta commenced, the YAI had told everyone that selection had been done and that the other team were going to the Asian Games. The effect on a lesser team would have been catastrophic. We took the approach that we would win the place as per the selection criteria and argue later. The girls stuck to this increasingly uphill task and achieved their objective, despite the fact that the other Indian team had been training for the three weeks that our team was financing and executing delivery.
There then followed the process of getting selection ratified. The YAI refused to do this, claiming ambiguity in their wording of selection criteria. Varsha and Sweta then had to find a lawyer who would operate on an affordable scale. The lawyer who agreed to take the case was Ms. Neela Ghokale, an incredible lady with a track record that is more than impressive. Without Ms Ghokale, the future of the team looked bleak. Her court performances lived up to her reputation, and we all owe her hugely. The case dragged on, with YAI playing for time, and ended in a farcical proposal that they organize a three boat (!!) trial in Jakarta, which would obviously cost around 20 lakhs. A week later they said it was unachievable, so it was back to court. Along the way, at a recorded meeting of Indian Olympic Association (IOA), the Honorary Secretary General of the YAI, an eminent Rear Admiral who in my previous experience has been a perfect gentleman, blatantly threatened to stop any progress of the team if they didn’t accept the selectors decision. He is being summonsed back to face an inquiry on a separate case. The selection decision was given through IOA that Varsha and Sweta were chosen. Justice had prevailed.
Now we get to a point where all the other nations had been training for the past three years or so, and had the best equipment and consistent support. The Chinese are believed to have had a domestic fleet of between 10 and 20 boats being coached full time, with domestic regattas and all the assistance needed. They are always a formidable force. The Singaporeans are a world top 20 boat, with several top 10 finishes at major regattas and the existing silver medalists Asian Games 2014. The reigning gold medalists Thailand were training hard for an unknown period before the regatta, but are always well supported and dynamic. The remaining boat in the fleet, the hosts Indonesia, were not in the same experience league. So we see that on paper we had had the fourth best preparation, then had been “training” in the High Court in Delhi for the critical month before the Games, leaving us a few days to train and get into some sort of groove. The YAI had appointed Francesca Clapcich, a great crew and person, as the coach for the original selection and told us that I was not able to be accredited. However good the coach, to begin coaching a team a couple of days prior to a regatta, you can make zero positive inroads. You can however screw things up pretty badly. Francesca did a great job on the water. We communicated plenty about any challenges, and all credit to her for a difficult job done well.
So now we look at the regatta in no great detail. The racing was predictably one way to Singapore. All the other teams battled. Our team was mainly in second place from the third day on, but always feeling the heat. How they survived to take the silver was, as stated, a matter of talent, grim determination, resolution and pure darned cussedness. At the end of the regatta the YAI did not even congratulate the girls, despite having the best performance of the team. Not only that, but they are currently refusing to transport the girl’s boat home! Their appalling selection policy now lies exposed. I am certain that with an equal program to Singapore, we would have stood a good chance at the Gold. Both logic and evidence would present a solid argument that this is the case.
Conclusion: War or Peace
There is little doubt that the story above is an example of two young ladies prepared to stop at nothing to deliver the best sailing results for many years to India, and achieve personal goals which to say the least are improbable under such circumstances.
We at Toplevel Sailing are incredibly proud of them, and proud of our role as coaches and driving forces behind them. The team achieved way beyond anything that could be expected in the situation, and I would challenge anyone to repeat this performance with the same preparation and events. After five international regattas together they win silver at the Asian Games.
So now we ask what next? The YAI are run by the navy. Clearly there is opportunity for the federation to be influenced both on the field of play and logistically by people with their own agendas. The fact that a team who had many weeks training in Garda under the YAI coach, and all the funding for women, could not beat a team with short term sponsors and just five regattas experience, speaks very poorly of YAI judgement.
With all the evidence against the YAI, and all the potential and talent of the team Varsha / Sweta, what olive branch are they prepared to hold out, or do they think the girls are going to roll over and accept the same treatment again?
We are holding our breath with anticipation, and truly hope it works out well. Over to you Mr President of YAI, Captain Narang and Dr. Shroff.
Campaign coaches to Team Varsha/Sweta