The writing was on the wall for Sri Lankan swimmer | Sunday Observer

The writing was on the wall for Sri Lankan swimmer

12 June, 2021
Aniqah Gaffoor training at the High - Performance Centre in Phuket, Thailand
Aniqah Gaffoor training at the High - Performance Centre in Phuket, Thailand

Aniqah Gaffoor, a prophetic 11-year old girl now age 17 is on the verge on realizing her childhood dream of swimming at the Tokyo Olympics:

When she was 11 years old Aniqah Gaffoor had posted ‘Olympics 2020 Tokyo’ on the wall of her room. She had begun swimming just a couple of years back and loved the rush of adrenaline in the pool. It was enough to spark a dream of going for the Tokyo Games but even in her wildest imagination she wouldn’t have believed that it could become a reality. In a tryst with destiny, the 17-year-old Sri Lanka butterfly-stroke national champion is on the verge of realising her childhood dream.

“When I was in Malaysia in my room I had written on the board ‘Olympics 2020 Tokyo’. At the time, it was just a dream. I just wrote for the fun of it. I didn’t think it would ever happen. I was just 11. You could say that’s where it started,” said Aniqah giggling like any ordinary girl when asked how her Olympic dream began.

“It really started to develop in 2019 when I realised I could break the records and I could go further,” she said more seriously as she dreams of bringing glory to Sri Lanka in Tokyo.

Nominated by the Sri Lanka Aquatic Sports Union and Sri Lanka’s National Olympic Committee as the leading female swimmer in the country to participate in the Olympics under the ‘Universal Places’ category or ‘wildcard’ quota, she has to wait until July 1 when FINA, the international swimming body, confirms her entry to book her flight to Tokyo.

Having been awarded the FINA Scholarship for 2020/21, she is training at Thanyapura, Phuket, Thailand, a FINA approved high performance training facility, under the guidance of Spanish coach Miguel Lopez and Alexander Tikhonov from Russia for the last three years.

She swims for 20 hours and tops it up with four hours of dryland and gym, each week. Her normal schedule includes training from 5.30am to 7.30am on four mornings and from 3.30 to 7.00pm every evening except Sunday and additionally one hour dryland/gym four days a week.

More significantly she achieved the distinction of breaking into the FINA top 200 rankings in the 100-metre butterfly event though her personal best (PB) of 1:04.58 is shy of the Olympic Standard.

Despite the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic stalling her momentum after peaking in 2019, like most athletes she considers the postponement of the Olympics as a blessing.

“At first when I realised it was going to be postponed, I was disappointed. I had built up momentum. But I also realised it gave me an extra year to get better,” said Aniqah who maintained her fitness despite being grounded by the Covid.

“I could get better both mentally and physically. I feel like I was more mature to go to the Olympics and to better experience it,” said Aniqah whose last competition was in Malaysia in March 2020.

“Now we are training towards the Olympics. It is much more intense,” she said of her preparation for the Olympics.

Asked whether her timings took a hit, she said: “I know that I am at the level I need to be and hitting them,” said Aniqah whose target is to break her National record during the Olympics.

“I would aim for 1:03. I hope I can make Sri Lanka proud by breaking the record there itself,” said Aniqah whose life and sporting career has been shaped in Malaysia and Thailand.

“When we moved to Malaysia in 2008, my daughter was only four years old. She has come to Sri Lanka only twice so far in her entire 17 years. Last time after the SAF (South Asian) Games, I took her to Sigiriya, ancient sites, Galle Fort, etc., to do a project on Sri Lanka,” said her proud father Ishan Gaffoor, a former Sri Lanka table tennis player.

“We are an athletic family. Though there are no swimmers in our family, she picked up on her own,” he added. His son Adil, 25, was ranked No. 3 in tennis at one time in Malaysia but the six-footer is now pursuing rock climbing.

Aniqah started swimming when she turned nine. During her time at ELC International School, Malaysia, she was introduced to the FOBISIA Games which is where her love for swimming began.

“We did four sports over three days – athletics, basketball, football and swimming. I did swimming predominantly,” recalled Aniqah who was a member of the Selangor in Malaysia from 2015 to 2017.

Competing for the first time in Sri Lanka at the 2018 National Age Group Championship, she dominated the podium winning four gold medals and a silver in the under-15 category swimming in freestyle and butterfly events.

“I loved all sports but I had a passion for swimming,” said Aniqah who stands tall at 172cm on choosing swimming over athletics where she did the high jump and 800 metres and was a striker in football.

Aniqah moved to Thailand in 2017 where whe got a school scholarship and swimming scholarship at United World College (UWC). A Grade XI student in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, Thailand, the school has been incredibly supportive of Aniqah’s endeavours, helping her find the perfect balance between swimming and academics.

Even in swimming she did all the events before specialising in the butterfly sprint event.

“I did the distance, freestyle and IM (Individual Medley). Now I am into butterfly sprinting,” said Aniqah who broke the Sri Lanka record in the 50m and 100m butterfly events in 2019.

Aniqah broke her first national record at the 55th Malaysia Invitational Age Group Swimming Championships for the 50m butterfly event in 2019 clocking 29.20 seconds. The record (29.81) was previously held by Dilrukshi Perera (Commonwealth Games 2018).

Two weeks later, she broke her own record for the 50m butterfly (29.10) and established a new national record for the 100m butterfly (1:04.58) at the 50th Singapore National Age Group Swimming Championships. The previous record (1:05.29) was held by Machiko Raheem.

Aniqah represented Sri Lanka for the first time in the 2016 SAAC or South Asian Aquatic Championship.

“I was quite young. It was quite exciting but also quite nervous because I saw the big swimmers like Matthew (Abeysinghe) and Kimiko (Raheem). They were much older than me. To be able to compete at that level at such a young age, was a good learning experience. I kept my PBs and was part of the relay team that won a medal,” she recalled excitedly of her international debut.

She also represented Sri Lanka at the 2019 FINA World Championship in South Korea in the 50m and 100m butterfly but suffered from a bout of influenza.

“It wasn’t my best meet because I was under the weather. Still it was a very good experience,” said Aniqah who was also selected for the FINA World Junior Championships in Budapest and Asian Age Group Championships in India but did not go since her focus was on the Worlds.

However, she bounced back to win two medals at the SAG in Kathmandu, Nepal – bronze in the 100m butterfly and silver in the relay event. “It was quite a good experience travelling with the team for the first time. I had two of my friends who I train with here (Thailand) from India and Pakistan,” said Aniqah, who trains with FINA scholars from 18 countries in the high-performance training centre in Phuket.

She does not have any role models in the sport but looks up to all swimmers for inspiration.

“They all start from the same place like we do. It just takes time and dedication. I like to pressure myself to be the best I can be. Inspiration is being part of FINA. A lot of them come from third world countries like Africa. They were brought up swimming in lakes and oceans. That inspires me to be like ‘okay I can do this as well and get just as far’,” said Aniqah whose pastime is photography with ambitions to become a sports medicine doctor.

“I like the way they (doctors) understand how the muscles and body works. That’s always interested me. I always had the passion to be a sports doctor in the future so that I can relate being an athlete and a doctor at the same time,” said Aniqah.