With a borrowed boat and the wind in her sails, Nethra Kumanan crafts sailing history

Nethra Kumanan is the first Indian to earn a direct entry into the Olympics as well as the first female sailor from the country to do so. Bogee Toth/sailingacademygc

During a team briefing days ahead of the Asian Olympic qualifiers, Indian sailing coach Tomasz Januszewski learnt that the country's brightest Olympic qualifying hope would be at sea with a slightly battered boat.

Nethra Kumanan's craft, much like the rest of the Indian sailors' boats, had been docked at the Abu Dhabi port storage since the Asian qualifiers were put off in March last year. The event, rescheduled to this year, was then moved to Oman and the boats too were packed in containers and sent by road to Al Musannah Sports City, a precinct near Muscat, some 400km away.

When Nethra landed in Oman from Chennai last month, she noticed her boat had undergone some wear and tear. Oman Sail, who were chartering out boats to the teams at the event, had only a few new crafts and they'd already allotted one to Ram Milan Yadav, her teammate and Laser sailor. Since Nethra was a clear favourite in her class, Januszewski suggested that Yadav swap his sturdier, newer boat with her.

"He (Yadav) was nice enough to understand that at the end of the day, it was about one of us winning an Olympic berth and helpfully gave me his boat," Nethra tells ESPN. "It was really a team effort."

On her borrowed boat, the 22-year-old kept up a steady performance in the 10-race opening series, following it up with a sixth place in the medal race to finish second in the Laser Radial class. She became the first Indian to earn a direct entry (all nine sailors earlier were nominated) into the Olympics as well as the first female sailor from the country to do so. Three more teammates - Vishnu Saravanan (Laser Standard), KC Ganapathy and Varun Thakkar (49er) too booked their Tokyo spots, making this the highest-ever Indian representation from the sport at the Olympics.

Nethra has fashioned this Olympic spot bit by bit through years of shuttling for short training stints overseas, occasionally in Malta and Israel. Since 2019, she turned Las Palmas - located in the Spanish Canary Islands archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa - into her base, sailing alongside some of the world's top-ranked professionals. She spends five days a week out in the waters with a bunch of top-20-ranked fellow trainees, most of whom have already qualified for this year's Olympics. "We're this group of girls who sail, surf and cycle around the island together. I'm learning how to be an elite athlete, really."

She is, however, both amused and a touch let down by the sport's scant popularity back in India. "Most tend to think it's rowing...it's not even close," says Nethra. "As a young girl, I had it easy in India because there were few females in the sport, so it helped me get national titles early. There isn't enough competition either to build you or push you as an athlete back in the country, unlike in Europe.

"I'm glad things are gradually changing though. Even others like Vishnu (Saravanan) have been training in Europe and it's really nice that all the hard work has brought us a payoff and the results are slowly beginning to show. The beauty is that it's happening for all of us around the same time."

In January last year, Nethra had a breakthrough result at the Hempel World Cup Series in Miami, becoming the first Indian to medal in a sailing World Cup with her bronze medal. She had earlier finished fifth at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games.

Manoeuvring the sleeved sail, single-handed dinghy in moderate to strong winds through the course of six race days involves tactical ability, sound strategy and more than decent upper-body strength. To maintain a good boat speed, sailors' endurance in hiking - the movement which has them hooking their feet under the boat straps and leaning their body outwards, almost dare-devilishly over the water - is an art they have to perfect, repeat and power through even in pain. The winner of each of the 10-12 heat races scores one point, second placed two, and so on, with the top 10 or those with the lowest scores going through to the medal race, which carries double points. The final placings are then decided by the lowest aggregate scores after the medal race.

"For me, this was obviously a huge-stakes event to get a spot in the Games. There's a lot of stress and I've learnt to make them work for me. I did a decent job of being consistent over the week. Some of the days, the conditions were to my favour where no one was near as fast as me, and some days, mine wasn't the fastest boat. I did make a few mistakes but it was still enough to get me over the line."

It highlights the pressures and attentional demands of the sport, which have to be weathered over an entire regatta. There's a mountain of information for sailors to navigate -- weather conditions, likely wind speeds, preparing the boat, the competition and having a strategy ahead of each day's race. At the end of every race, the results are a reminder of where they stand and how far they need to go. They have to get back out in the water the next morning, without all that knowledge drowning them.

To prepare herself to better handle all this, Nethra has been working with sports psychologist Mon Brokman for over a year now.

"It's helped me figure how to do what I do in training and at the races as well," she says. "That aspect has been a huge struggle for me since I started. I've always had trouble sailing to my potential when it counted, or when stress and expectations are high. We spoke every day before and after the races and this event has proved that I can fight the demons."

For this event, Nethra also did something she wouldn't ordinarily do - let her parents accompany her to the competition. Part of it could have to do being away from family in Gran Canaria through the whole of last year. She managed to visit her home in Chennai only four days before travelling to Oman. Her father, VC Kumanan, laughs at suggestions of being her data miner but rattles off the knots on each race day off the back of his hand. In typical fatherly style, he says, "I just bring the money she needs to get better. It's an expensive sport, especially if you're training abroad and she's been lucky to have GoSports Foundation and the Yatching Association of India chipping in with support.

"I certainly don't want to be one of those parents who's never kicked a ball or played a sport but saddles their kid with their own unfulfilled ambitions. I'm here because Nethra has a dream and she believes in it."

Kumanan keeps a hawk eye on races, events and results across the world, devours sailing news, follows social media developments on what sailors across the world are up to and has world rankings of Nethra's fellow Laser Radial sailors on his fingertips. "Once in a while, it comes in handy to have all that information of the competition field. For this event, I really didn't need to do much work. She was an overriding favorite right from the start."

"There isn't enough competition either to build you or push you as an athlete back in India, unlike in Europe. I'm glad things are gradually changing though." Nethra Kumanan

Kumanan took his kids, Nethra and Naveen, through a variety of outdoor sports when they were younger, during summer breaks from school. "Tennis, basketball, sailing, and somehow this stuck on," he says. "They wanted to keep going back. So I too spent whole days at the port trust (where the Tamil Nadu sailing association is located) while they sailed. Soon I began helping out the coaches and going into the waters with them and later went on to become a committee member in the federation. Nethra was also a trained Bharatnatyam dancer when she began sailing but slowly it was clear which of the two she couldn't let go."

A second-year mechanical engineering student, Nethra's biggest competition so far at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour in Fujisawa City, 50km south-east of Tokyo, is a little more than 100 days away. "Tokyo is going to be a huge learning curve for me," she says. "It'll help me understand what it takes so that I'm really prepared in 2-3 years for the next Games."

On Thursday, as the four Indian Olympic-bound sailors in their wetsuits and buoyancy aids, stood arms around each other, leaning against the sails and squinting in the sun, Nethra could only think of how she got there.

"I really hope since so many of us have qualified, it'll get more people in India to try out the sport. It's how I started. For a lark, at a summer camp. If you put time into it, it's so worth it. The sense of freedom you get out there - in the middle of the ocean, just you, your boat and the wind, is something else."