From earthquake survival to Rio pool: Nepal’s 13-year-old heroine
Backstroke participation caps emotional rollercoaster for swimmer Singh
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