Asian Games medalist Neha Thakur’s journey from swimming in small streams to sailing for silver in the sea

We have never seen the sea but our daughter has made the Indian flag fly high in the sea today.”

That’s how Mukesh Thakur described his feelings after his 17-year-old daughter Neha came away with a sailing silver in the girls’ dinghy ILCA 4 event at the Asian Games on Tuesday.

Neha competed singlehandedly in a 4.23m long, 65kg dinghy to finish fourth in the 11th race of the event on Tuesday, finishing second overall at the NBX Sailing Centre in Ningbo.

It was a test of Neha’s stamina and endurance as she had to compete in 11 races over the last five days.

Mukesh recalls that as a child, Neha would often ask him to take her swimming with the help of a cycle or motorcycle tube. Their village Amlataj in Hatpipliya tehsil of Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas district has small streams close to check dams, where the child would use cycle tubes to float in the narrow channels.

“Neha has learnt swimming from cycle and motorcycle tubes. It was her favourite pastime in the village before she was selected for training in Bhopal. Once she shifted there, all she dreamt was winning a medal for India,” Mukesh told The Indian Express from his village.

It was in 2015 that Neha was selected by coach GL Yadav for trials conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Sailing Academy in the state capital. With the village more than 150 km from the city, it was on the insistence of her cousin Vishal Singh Thakur, a sailor himself, that Neha’s family decided to get her enrolled at the academy.

“Neha had no experience of swimming in a big river or lake. But when we put her in the trials, I was impressed by her natural ability to judge the depth of the water and the wind. So I decided to put her in sailing. Initially, she sailed on a small boat with a life jacket but once she became confident in swimming, she would go alone with the boat,” Yadav, former chief coach of the MP Sailing Academy, said.

The junior sailors started training with Optimist, one of the smallest single-handed sailing boats for youth competitions. With a length of 2.31m and hull weight of 35 Kg as compared to ICLA 4’s 55 Kg, it was the choice for Neha as well at Bada Talab in Bhopal.

Asian Games 2023: Neha Thakur sailor family

Family members of Neha Thakur at their village in Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday. (Express photo)

With the boat able to withstand winds up to 30 knots, a young Neha would understand wind changes and water pressure changes. “We put trainees in life jackets on the Optimist even before they are expert swimmers so that they can judge the balance and speed of the boat. Like any other trainee, Neha’s Optimist would also topple over but she would be quick to come back on the dinghy,” says Yadav.

The Optimist class is used for sailors till the age of 15 and most Olympians also start their careers on this class of boat. With the boat having parts like hiking straps used to control the sail and different ropes and a rudder to control the boat, Neha would work on building stamina for the races.

Learning the ropes

“Sailing requires the use of all the muscles in the body. While we worked on Neha’s stamina and muscle power with small to medium- range sessions in the lake, it was most important to make her judge the movement of the wind and water. We would make her observe the opponent’s sails, how to sail with and against the wind, and use it to her advantage. While we used to have races every month, she would train for three hours daily in the 3 km area in the lake. A lot of times, we would let her sail on different courses including triangle, rectangle as other shapes,” the coach says.

Last year, Neha won the bronze medal at the Asian Championships in Abu Dhabi with compatriot Ritika Dangi getting the gold. With the Madhya Pradesh government sponsoring Neha’s training in Spain and Malta in the last two years, she has also spent time at various sailing clubs in Europe. “The medal in Abu Dhabi made her believe that she can win at the international level. One of the major problems faced by sailors is the cost of the dinghy. But sailors like Neha have been training in Europe and have got boats costing Rs 10 lakh or more. Once the young sailors get hold of the boats, it is easier for us to train them mentally as well,” says Yadav.

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In an event, where points are given in ascending order from the top to last finishers (starting with one for the winner), Neha finished with 32 points with one of her worst scores not being counted for the final tally. Her net score of 27 was one less than Singapore’s Kiera Marie Carlyle who won the bronze medal. Thailand’s Noppassorn Khunboonjan won the gold with 16 points.

It was an Outer Trapezoid course on Tuesday while the earlier races saw alternate races on Outer Trapezoid and Inner Trapezoid shapes respectively. With wind speeds at the sea ranging from 6.4 to 12.6 knots through the five days, it was a range of different conditions for the sailors.

“It was a bit windy here today and the rest of the week too the wind was picking up in the race. The main challenge for Neha was to adjust to the wind conditions as well as to the inner and outer trapezoid courses on alternate days according to the wind. This medal will motivate her a lot at such a young age,” said coach Narendra Singh Rajput.