Shikha Tandon is one of the few Indian sportspersons who has combined sports and education at the highest level. As one of India’s top swimmers, Shikha competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics in 50m and 100m freestyles – the two events in which she still holds the national record. She was just 19 then. A shoulder injury ended her stellar career in the pool six years later, but it was just the start of another bright new venture for her.
Shikha was ready with a post retirement blueprint – a phase that Indian athletes are mostly unsure about. In two years, Sikha, on the back of her double master’s degree in biology, was working at the US Anti-Doping Agency and exploring a subject that was close to her heart since her swimming days. For the next five years she worked in various projects critical to USADA’s scientific initiatives – perfectly aligning her sports and education background.
The 35-year-old former athlete from Bengaluru is now based in San Francisco and works in an exercise analytics company that provides data to athletes and coaches to optimise performance. Shikha feels education has a very important role in an athlete’s life – be it understanding your own body, diet and the sport, following anti-doping programme or making a post retirement plan.
“I have seen many athletes who don’t have any plan after retirement. For them, it becomes very stressful. It impacts them mentally. The transition phase from an athlete to making another career is very important. An athlete is used to a certain way of life and when that stops, he wakes up asking, ‘now what?’ says Shikha in a webinar on ‘How Sports and Education Transformed My Life’ arranged by The Sports School, Bengaluru.
For Shikha, that moment of reckoning which every athlete dreads came in 2010 after a recurrence of shoulder injury. She was already enrolled for her second Master’s degree in biology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, after doing MSc in Biotechnology from Bangalore University. “I just jumped the bandwagon. It was getting difficult in the pool and also with the amount of money I had to spend for competition and training because there were no sponsors. But I was prepared. An athlete’s career is unpredictable – injuries can force him to quit. What do you do then? Education can help you.”
Professional sport is so gruelling that an athlete hardly gets time to think about anything else, least of all studies, Shikha tells SP Likith and Srihari Nataraj – India’s two talented swimmers who were part of the discussion. “The lockdown period is a golden opportunity for athletes to recharge, re-evaluate goals and study. Learn about your sport, learn new things,” she said.
“Do mental training so that you are recharged even though the body might be rusty when you return to the pool.”
Her interest in anti-doping arose during the time she was competing. “I was tested a lot and we would see syringes lying in national camps, we would hear about doping in newspapers. I saw how the system worked or did not work and I made up my mind that I wanted to educate myself in anti- doping and work in the field,” says Shikha.
Nothing much has changed in Indian sport — when it comes to anti-doping — since her days. The yearly doping cases are still high. “Education plays an important role — not just for athletes but doctors, medical staff, physios, coaches and for everyone who is part of an athlete’s entourage,” she says.
“World anti-doping agency updates its list every year and the doctor should know about it, the athlete should be aware.”
Shikha, who is in the advisory board of the Sports School in Bengaluru – a centre that brings sports and education together for kids—says there is so much focus on success in Indian sport that sometimes it kills the joy. “I swam because I enjoyed it and that takes away the burden. Parents should support their kids to reach their potential. Not everyone can become an Olympic medallist or a world champion. But what you learn in sport, no text book in the world can teach you, and what you learn in text book, you can’t learn anywhere else,” she said.