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Why Kutraleeshwaran gave up swimming, and how he’s giving back now

A once star-swimmer of the Nineties, Kutraleeshwaran gave up his passion in pursuit of a certain lifestyle. Through his latest venture, he is now giving it all back to the sport

Perched atop a docked boat, Kutraleeshwaran Ramesh looks pensively at the sea. It has been a few years since he visited Chennai’s Marina Beach, an all-too familiar place that gave him a shot at fame when he was just nine.

Back then in the Nineties, as a child who loved being in the water, Kutral took part in a five-kilometre swimming competition at sea. “I came fourth,” he recalls, “After finishing it, I started building sand castles. People were curious; I had accomplished something phenomenal at such a young age and yet was nonchalantly playing.”

Kutral remembers this incident distinctly for it was a turning point in his life. Until then, he mostly swam in pools and felt too “bored”. Swimming soon took over his life and he was hailed a child prodigy: Kutral swam the English channel when he was 12, entered the Guinness World Records for swimming across six straits within a calendar year and represented the country at several international competitions.

And then, when everyone thought he would achieve greater heights, he quit swimming.

Cut to the present, and Kutral has done multiple things; he has an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts, USA, worked with Intel and is currently with Nanban Ventures in Canada. “Swimming isn’t a lucrative field. I aspired for a certain quality of life, which wouldn’t have been possible had I continued. Today, I am in a position to give back to society.”

Kutraleeshwaran | Photo Credit: R Ravindran

Life and sport

Kutral hopes to do that with his latest venture, Nanban Sports Foundation, which aims to identify and nurture sporting talents from the grassroots level. “The ultimate vision is that an IT engineer and a sportsperson should have the same quality of life,” he explains.

“We hope to increase the talent pool to represent the country, which will in turn translate to medals. The reason parents push children to pursue Engineering or Medicine is because they see successful people in those professions leading a good life. In sports, you will have to retire after a few years. The financial security post retirement is a big question mark for many.”

He hopes to address that issue too. Under the Legends category, the Foundation will also support star sportspersons who had brought laurelsbut are now financially struggling. “These are two sides of thecoin: people who have been there and done that, are the ones who will encourage future generations to take up the sport,” adds Kutral.

Indian swimmer Kutraleeshwaran, 13, a swimming prodigy who belied his age, snapped on November 16, 1995. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES | Photo Credit: PTI

Water tales

Growing up in the quiet bylanes of Chennai’s Gopalapuram, Kutral was just a normal everyday kid whose life changed once he got into swimming. There was a phase when he hated it — and the recognition that came with it (he was once summoned from a galli cricket match to attend a press interview) — but today, he looks back with a smile.

Fortunately for him, the choice of whether to continue professional swimming or not came just after his Class XII exams, by when he had already represented India in two world series. The option was to choose between swimming and a college education, and Kutral chose the latter. He finished his degree from College of Engineering, Guindy and later went to the US for higher studies. “I feel the word ‘passion’ is overrated. If I’m passionate about something today, it doesn’t mean I would be as passionate about it a few years later.”

Such crucial life decisions have been possible, he says, thanks to the murattu dhairiyam (bravado) he has harboured. “I do not take anything very seriously in life; its easier if you are detached. It also helps that I always see the worst-case scenario while taking decisions. Its a misconception that people think I was a champion swimmer and then left it. I was talented, but my quality of life would have suffered drastically. It was a practical and conscious decision to quit…I have no regrets,” about it,” he signs off.

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