Nethra Kumanan is the 10th Indian to qualify for a sailing event at an Olympics, but her achievement is a bit more special.
Nethra Kumanan is the first woman from India to do so and significantly, the first Indian sailor to have booked a place at the Olympics directly and that too by topping a qualifying event for the Summer Games.
The nine Indians before her managed to get to the Games only because the quotas were not filled up. Some even moved up from the waiting list. All of them, of course, were men.
Most importantly, Nethra Kumanan earned her spot at the Tokyo Olympics in the Laser Radial category after she led the 10-race series at the Mussanah Open Championship in Oman convincingly in April 2021. In the medal round, she finished sixth, and was placed second overall.
Such was Nethra’s performance that she had all but booked her place on the penultimate day of the Asian qualifiers held at the Millennium Resort in the oldest sultanate situated on the Persian Gulf.
Mussanah, incidentally, is also where Nethra’s international sailing career kicked off in an Under-21 event in 2013.
The sailor from Chennai races in the Laser Radial category, a small, dinghy-style boat that is sailed single-handedly.
Nethra Kumanan has been a trailblazer for India in sailing. She is also the first Indian woman to win a medal in the sport after clinching a bronze in the second round of the Hempel World Cup Series in Miami in January last year.
But her celebrations were muted as the humble Nethra had beaten roommate and friend Matilda Talluri of Italy, who had finished fifth.
Nethra Kumanan is an experienced sailor. She has represented India at both the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games. Her best finish was a fourth in the 2018 edition in Jakarta, Indonesia.
For Nethra, the fourth place in Jakarta was a failure because her aim was to seal a spot at the Olympics. She crumbled under what she said was “self-inflicted” pressure.
Nevertheless, it was still a big achievement, considering where she hails from.
“Most people don’t know sailing exists in India,” Nethra Kumanan had said after her historic World Cup medal. “Our sports are cricket, football or hockey and it’s more the navy or the army that sail.”
Born on August 21, 1997, Nethra was introduced to sailing during a summer camp organised by Tamil Nadu Sailing Association in 2009. She was 12 at the time.
It was a time when she was exploring. Nethra was into tennis, basketball and cycling as a youngster. But she learnt the most from Bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance), which she had to give up for sailing.
Bharatanatyam had shaped her, instilling values like discipline, hard work and dedication, which helps her today even as sailing became an integral part of her life.
"I love it, it’s like no other sport, and I played everything as a kid,” says Nethra. “Sailing has been different and more mental than any other sport that I’ve tried.”
Nethra, who is also an engineering student at the SRM College in Chennai, has won the national championships twice and has been a runner-up on two other occasions. Her first podium finish in an international event came at the India International Regatta held in Chennai in 2014.
Admittedly close to her family, she also inspired her younger brother, Naveen, to take up sailing. He too competed at the national level but eventually opted to pursue his education in Michigan.
Meanwhile, Nethra’s father VC Kumanan, who runs an IT company, has been by her side crunching data and providing analytical support.
“If someone younger were to come up to me, I’d tell them that this sport takes a lot of time, a lot of hours in the water but it’s all worth it,” Nethra has been quoted as saying.
“And you get to travel the world, meet people from different countries and experience them trying to do their best and you try to do better than them,” she points out.
Nethra has been training at Gran Canaria in Spain for the last year and a half with Hungarian coach Tamas Eszes, a two-time Olympian.