Mumbai: As a kid not even in her teens yet, Dhinidhi Desinghu remembers watching India’s top swimmer Srihari Nataraj compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 on television. “I went: ‘Oh, I want to be there too’. And watching Srihari made me believe that I could as well,” Dhinidhi said. “Three years later, here I am.”

Dhinidhi Desinghu. (HT Photo)

Here she is, gearing up to head to Paris along with Srihari as the youngest in the overall Indian contingent so far for next month’s Olympics. At 14, the girl from Bengaluru was handed one of the two Universality places for the Games after no Indian swimmer managed to make the qualification cut.

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While that’s a drop from Tokyo for which two Indians had breached the A standard time, for Dhinidhi it’s a big step up. One that she has earned as the highest-ranked female swimmer in the country presently. The 14-year-old will compete in 200m freestyle, in which she became senior national champion last year clocking her personal best timing of 02:04.24.

“The Olympics was one of my biggest dreams, and to get it at 14 is amazing. I’m glad that the hard work and effort I put in paid off. This is just the beginning of my journey. I just want to experience the Olympic stage this time,” she said.

Part of that experience is to rub shoulders with and observe how the best go about their business on and off the pool in that high-spotlight stage. “I’d like to see how they race, how they prepare, how they warm up, what they do differently from us Indians generally,” she said. “It’ll also be nice to explore Paris.”

Timely reminder that she’s 14. Followed by another one. Dhinidhi plans to make handwritten gift cards and deliver them hopefully in person to her “childhood swim hero” and reigning 200m freestyle Olympic champion, Katie Ledecky of USA. “She was basically the first swimmer I knew. For a long time I wanted to meet Katie,” the teen gushed.

Dhinidhi’s already got a taste of multi-sport events; she was picked for India’s Asian Games squad last year after her nationals victory. This year so far, she swept the 100m, 200m and 400m free medals at the Singapore National Age Group and took the 200m gold at another age group meet in Malaysia. Earlier this month at the Singapore National Championships, she won the 200m bronze (2:05.92).

“She happens to be the best Indian swimmer at this point amongst the girls,” renowned coach Nihar Ameen, in whose academy Dhinidhi trains in Bengaluru and who will accompany both swimmers to Paris, said. “For her to be at the Olympics at this age, it’ll be a great learning experience.”

A shy kid who did not speak much due to the fear of being judged, her badminton-loving parents thought getting her to learn swimming in a pool next to their home in Bengaluru would help. The eight-year-old didn’t like getting into the water at first, even though the coach reckoned she had good stamina. Dhinidhi then joined Ameen’s Dolphin Aquatics in 2019.

“She had a good, solid structure,” Ameen said. “When she first came in, she was a medium level performer. We had to redo her technique and training program and then she went from strength to strength. She is also strong mentally now. She has a bright future.”

The class 9 student finds balancing her studies and swimming “difficult but possible”. She has left the long-term planning of how she sees her swimming career develop to her parents. For now, it’s all about Paris. “I want to see what I can do in that different environment,” she said.