Come September, and swimming enthusiasts in India will have reason to cheer. Olympic champion Stephanie Rice, who won three gold medals for Australia in various categories at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, will launch an academy to coach competitive swimmers at Bengaluru’s Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence, set up by badminton champion Prakash Padukone and cricketer Rahul Dravid. Meeting BLink at the JW Marriott in Phuket, where Rice offers a masterclass for children, she speaks about her plans for team India.
Tell us about your India connection.
During my swimming career, I never got the chance to compete in India. I had to pull out of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi because of shoulder surgery. Yet, there was an affinity. I was always written about in the Indian media although I had never been there. So, after I finished my swimming career four years ago, I went to Mumbai to see what the swimming scene was like there and if there was an opportunity for me to do anything. India was so welcoming.
I was asked to be in the Star Sports commentary team and cover India’s performance in the Rio Olympics. I had a great time. I then covered the Pro Kabaddi League and got to live in India for four months. It gave me such a good idea of the sports culture. That gave me the opportunity to start my academy in Bengaluru. I’m excited that it’s finally happening.
It’ll probably be a September media launch with a December start date. When we start in December, it’ll be with the goal of having a really good go at the 2028 summer Olympics. The ultimate goal is to have an Indian swimmer at the Olympic podium. That’s never happened before. I believe it can happen. There’s talent in India. I just don’t think it’s been nurtured before with the right kind of coaching and mental support.
Tell us more about the academy.
The infrastructure is provided by the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence. They have an amazing pool. I’m fortunate to have space. I’m investing my time and reputation in this. We are looking for a company to sponsor the swimmers. While we can give them coaching time, they need to be able to compete globally and gain experience.
For starters, it’s going to be for kids who are already competing in district- and state-level championships. The training programme will be tough. So we want to give it a good headstart. In a few years, though, we’re hopeful of having a junior squad programme that will also open the doors to kids who can swim but aren’t competing yet.
What do you think of India’s current swimming scene? Are there any notable swimmers?
It’s hard to say. From my research, no Indian swimmer has made it to a semi-final in the Olympics — the pinnacle for swimming. That means no one’s in the top 16. A part of the problem is that India has struggled to retain its talent. Some of the really good swimmers have had to go to the US or Australia to train, and if you’re not born into a family that can afford that, then you have a slim chance to be ahead in your game. The goal is to lift the whole country with good coaching and international racing experience. Eventually, I want to provide sponsorship opportunities for kids who can’t afford good access.
How did you move from swimming to doing kabaddi commentary on national television?
(Laughs) It really did come out of nowhere. After the Rio Olympics stint with Star, they were looking to promote kabaddi and trying and get more international presence. I saw it as an opportunity to learn about a sport I knew nothing about. It was really hard. It was new. I didn’t know what I was talking about half the time! I had to learn all the rules, understand each player’s strengths and weaknesses and pronounce all their names correctly. There is nothing worse on TV than being the person who says someone’s name wrong.
What was most amazing was seeing those players from the lower socio-economic strata making no money at the beginning of the season to now being able to provide for their families. We don’t get to see that in Australia. Because I was involved it got so much coverage in Australia, which is what they were hoping for. We even had an Australian Kabaddi World cup team that comprised AFL and football players who didn’t know the sport and we were horrific!
In India, we’re always given to understand that what we lack most in sports is the infrastructure and the mental stamina to dream big...
India’s sports infrastructure, I’d say, is inconsistent. There are some places that are amazing and some other places that need more help. We’re building a swimming academy that’s going to be one of the best in the world.
I think the thing that lets India down in swimming is coaching. Australia, the US or the UK are so strong because there are lots of different coaches and programmes. The plan is to bring in my Australian Olympic coach to mentor the local coaches. I’m also really passionate about mental performance. I will be there a lot, working with the kids one-on-one, helping them build the resilience and confidence you need to race internationally.
My belief is no one is really limited unless you believe you are. India has to put in that hard work. When I look back at my career, I see that a lot of my confidence came from training really hard and having a support system that believes in you.
I also want to motivate more women to have the confidence to pursue a career in sports. When PV Sindhu became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic silver, a generational shift occurred. Every child wanted to play badminton. “I can make a career being an athlete” was a thought that women started to have. That’s a tough one, especially breaking away from the norm that tells you to focus on academic education and job security.
But now the narrative is starting to shift. Sports might be a risky profession to pursue. It’s about giving it everything you’ve got. That’s why everyone loves watching it.