THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Dekalu Thi Panmei—your tongue takes a few innocuous twists before you get the pronunciation correct—is only eight. She looks even younger, and straight out of feted Chinese director Jack Neo’s critically-acclaimed movie Home Run, which tells the story of a pair of siblings and their adventures over a lost pair of shoes. If you are wondering what she is doing in the Games Village, you’ll wonder more when you realise she is a participant, a swimmer to be exact.
Frolicking around the Village, despite the suppressing heat, the initial impression is that she might the kid of an athlete or an official. But the giant tag hung around her neck, big enough to weigh her down, is a giveaway. Her coach Kiran Mala has to literally run behind her, lest she could be lost in the vast fiber jungle that is the Village. “I’ve lost quite a lot of weight running behind her. I wonder how I’ll be after the event gets over,” Mala, a former international swimmer jests.
Joining Panmei from the behind a cluster of bricks are Yaipha Phi and H Ritu, aged eight and 10, respectively. Mala shouted at them to not split from the group. She informs they are playing hide and seek. They promptly trotted back to her, chirped something in Manipuri, laughed heartily and formed a ring around her. “I’m like a mother to them. I have to be with them throughout. They are quite mischievous,” she laughs.
For all their playfulness, Mala asserts they are quite serious about the sport. “They are not here for time pass. They want to learn and they are practising as hard as some of our senior athletes. They were selected after trials. In addition to almost a full school week, they train for nearly 20 hours a week.”
But you again wonder the logic behind initiating such young swimmers into a serious tournament. “Some of the seniors are only competing in water polo. Some of them are injured. See, they haven’t even competed in sub-junior nationals. But we want to give them early exposure. This experience will be of huge benefit as they graduate to a bigger level. This exposure part is something I have never had when I was growing up,” explains Mala, who had competed in the 1982 Asian Games.
This youth drive, she informs, is a concerted effort by the Manipur Olympic Association. “We reckon the best way to nurture talented athletes is to give them early exposure, and we have been doing this every sport. If you look at our contingent, the average age must be 20-21,” she points out.
Panmei is not only the youngest swimmer around—she is a couple of months younger to Bi—but also the shortest and the lightest. “She will be a bit nervous seeing the bigger swimmers around her. But we want the kids to shed the fear,” she says. Bi then pulls out a candy from her jacket. Panmei shakes off Mala’s fingers and sprints behind her. Mala too sets off behind them. They might be too young to realise the legacy of boxer Mary Kom. But the spirit of Mary is not lost.