Sailing has been only seen as a hobby in India and that, too in very few parts of India people passionately practice it as a hobby. There are professional sailors who undertake it as a career and even participate in international competitions. For people who want to make a career out of it, Nethra Kumanan became an inspiration for them. The 22-year-old, who barely had any popularity in the Indian sports fraternity, suddenly rose up to fame in April.
This is because Nethra Kumanan became the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics and also the first Indian sailor to get a direct entry into the Summer Games. She earned her spot at the Tokyo Olympics in the Laser Radial category after she led the 10-race series at the Mussanah Open Championship in Oman convincingly in April 2021. In the medal round, she finished sixth, and was placed second overall. The performance was amazing that she booked her place on the penultimate day of the Asian qualifiers held at the Millennium Resort in the oldest sultanate situated on the Persian Gulf.
The fact that Nethra Kumanan became the first woman from India to do so is already history however, she was the first Indian sailor to have booked a place at the Olympics directly and that too by topping a qualifying event for the Summer Games. Prior to this, the nine Indians who managed to get to the Games only because the quotas were not filled up. Some even moved up from the waiting list. All of them, of course, were men.
Mussanah, incidentally, is also where Nethra’s international sailing career kicked off in an Under-21 event in 2013. Hailing from Chennai, she races in the Laser Radial category - a small, dinghy-style boat that is sailed single-handedly. It all started when Nethra was introduced to sailing during a summer camp organised by Tamil Nadu Sailing Association in 2009. She was 12 at the time.
Nonetheless, at that time, she was still exploring like any other kid. She was into tennis, basketball and cycling as a youngster. But she learned the most from Bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance), which she had to give up for sailing. That one moment changed her life upside down as she got hooked and pursued her passion. "I love it, it’s like no other sport, and I played everything as a kid,” says Nethra. The reason why she was keen in that sport was that she felt she could rely upon her mental capabilities more in this discipline.
Since then, Nethra Kumanan has been a trailblazer for India in sailing. She is also the first Indian woman to win a medal in the sport after clinching a bronze in the second round of the Hempel World Cup Series in Miami in January last year. She has represented India at both the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games. Her best finish was a fourth in the 2018 edition in Jakarta, Indonesia. For Nethra, the fourth place in Jakarta was a failure because her aim was to seal a spot at the Olympics. She crumbled under what she said was “self-inflicted” pressure.
However, it was still a big achievement, considering where she hails from. "Most people don’t know sailing exists in India,” Nethra Kumanan had said after her historic World Cup medal. “Our sports are cricket, football or hockey and it’s more the navy or the army that sail.”Now, Nethra has been training at Gran Canaria in Spain for the last year and a half with Hungarian coach Tamas Eszes, a two-time Olympian.
Sailing is a sport of endurance and Nethra possesses a plethora of it in her, after all, representing India in such a rare sport is a no-mean feat. With her getting qualified for Olympics, India should starts to take the sport with more seriousness. Kumanan could remain an inspiration for the coming generation, which would be a major lift of the status of sailing in India.