From earth­quake sur­vival to Rio pool: Nepal’s 13-year-old hero­ine

Back­stroke par­tic­i­pa­tion caps emo­tional roller­coaster for swim­mer Singh

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - RIO 2016 - Jim White

Gau­rika Singh’s Olympics lasted pre­cisely one minute, 8.45 sec­onds. She came 32rd out of 34 com­peti­tors at­tempt­ing to qual­ify for the 100me­tres back­stroke. No sooner than it be­gan, it was over. But it is un­likely to be her last ex­pe­ri­ence of elite com­pe­ti­tion. Af­ter all, she is only 13 years old. If she re­tired in 2032 af­ter com­pet­ing in the next four Olympics, she would still be just 29.

“What an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said af­ter her race had fin­ished, as she faced up to a sig­nif­i­cant me­dia scrum at the side of the Olympic pool. “I can’t be­lieve it.”

Singh is eas­ily the youngest ath­lete in these Games. She was born in 2002. To put her age in per­spec­tive, Mary Hanna, the Aus­tralian eques­trian and the old­est par­tic­i­pant was born in 1954. One fifth of Nepal’s en­tire co­hort here in Rio, Singh also has the unique dis­tinc­tion of be­ing the coun­try’s first ever com­peti­tor in the swim­ming pool. Not that she learned her trade in Kath­mandu’s mu­nic­i­pal pool. When an Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist asked her what fa­cil­i­ties were like for swim­ming in Nepal she looked a lit­tle non plussed.

“I train in Lon­don. So I don’t re­ally know.”

In­deed, her lovely re­ceived pro­nun­ci­a­tion ac­cent is a clue as to her back­ground. Her fa­ther Paras is a con­sul­tant urol­o­gist at the Royal Free Hospi­tal in Lon­don who came to Eng­land to work when his daugh­ter was just two. She at­tends Hab­er­dash­ers’ Aske’s, the renowned pri­vate girls’ school in El­stree. It is clearly a school with a ta­lented en­try. When she was asked what her class­mates made of her prow­ess, Singh smiled.

“My friends are re­ally happy for me but they are also good at stuff. One of my best friends plays Matilda in the West End, an­other went to ju­nior Wim­ble­don.”

It must be some prize giv­ing day in El­stree. But even in that el­e­vated peer group, Singh’s achieve­ment is as­ton­ish­ing. So young she is still wear­ing braces on her teeth, she gave an amaz­ingly ma­ture per­for­mance here. And that was just in the press mixed zone.

Out in the pool, hers was the first race of the af­ter­noon ses­sion. Her fa­ther was up in the stands to watch her make his­tory, to­gether with one of her train­ing part­ners from Hamp­stead Swim­ming Club. She was one of just three com­peti­tors in what was eas­ily the slow­est heat in the two length sprint. The young Hamp­stead Nepalese was up against a swim­mer from Kosovo and one from Samoa. At the half­way point, Evelina Afoa, the Samoan, touched first. But Singh, her stroke smooth and pow­er­ful, her line direct, eased back into con­tention, touch­ing home first. It may have been the bat­tle of the also-rans, but with a stretch of her fin­gers she be­came the youngest per­son ever to win a heat in the Olympic pool.

For Singh, ev­ery­thing about the Olympics had been jaw drop­ping. Just be­ing in the ath­lete’s vil­lage, she said, was some­thing she would never for­get.

“Amaz­ing. I can’t be­lieve how big it is,” she said. “It’s mas­sive. I love how all the ath­letes mix there.”

Though the mo­ment that left her un­able to speak with ex­cite­ment came just be­fore her race.

“Dur­ing the warm up I was swim­ming in the lane next to Mitch Larkin, I was like: wow,” she said of lim­ber­ing up along­side the men’s back­stroke world record holder. “I didn’t say any­thing to him, but that is amaz­ing.”

She will be in the stands when Larkin swims in his fi­nal later this week. That is what she in­tends to do now her in­volve­ment is over: watch her he­roes in ac­tion.

“I’m leav­ing on the 13th,” she said. “Then I’m go­ing to Nepal, to have a hol­i­day fi­nally.”

It will be an emo­tional re­turn for her. The last time she was in Kath­mandu was to swim in the na­tional swim­ming cham­pi­onships last April. While she was there, she and her mother and brother were caught up in the earth­quake that killed 9000 peo­ple and left hun­dreds of thou­sands home­less. She es­caped in­jury af­ter her mother pushed her un­der a ta­ble. Shocked by the dev­as­ta­tion she wit­nessed, she has sub­se­quently do­nated all her com­pet­i­tive win­nings to the earth­quake re­lief fund.

“It wasn’t very much,” she said with char­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty. “But I hope it helped.”

And for Singh this time there will be some press­ing per­sonal is­sues to at­tend to.

“School starts on Septem­ber 6th,” she said. “And I haven’t done any home­work all sum­mer.”

Ex­tra­or­di­nary feat: Gau­rika Singh, Nepal’s first ever swim­ming com­peti­tor, re­acts af­ter her 100m back­stroke heat

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