Sri Lanka’s big fish in the pool

Swimmer with haul of records and medals for country in Asian competition sets sights on Commonwealth Games glory.

Float like a butterfly: Francis still has a chance of winning Sri Lanka’s first Commonwealth medal in swimming

When Conrad Francis’ grandfather took him for a dip in the waves of Lavinia Bay near Colombo, Sri Lanka, the eight-year-old had no idea he would be swimming all the way to Sydney.

The journey took more than a decade, but Francis, by now 19, found himself with the eyes of the world on him as he stood by the pool at the International Aquatic Centre as an Olympic athlete at Sydney 2000.

The 6ft-tall Francis could have gunned for a career as a fast bowler in Sri Lanka’s number one sport, cricket.

But he has no regrets at the path he chose and, after competing at two Olympics and becoming a household name on the island, he now wants to be the first from his country to win a Commonwealth Games swimming medal.

Sri Lanka, whose Anton Sudesh Peiris claimed weightlifting bronze in the men’s 62kg on Tuesday, had previously only won 10 Commonwealth medals in total since the first Games in 1930.

With Australia dominating the pool as usual in New Delhi, a semi-final spot is Francis’ first target.

And having won a swimming scholarship to Victoria that meant spending his teens Down Under, Francis has competitive pedigree among giants of the sport whom he still counts as close friends – and family.

‘Home from home’

“I rose up through the nationals with the Australian guys who are here in Delhi – it’s like home from home,” he told Al Jazeera after recording a personal best and Sri Lankan record of 00:26.39 in the 50m butterfly heats on Tuesday.

“My coach (from Nunawading swimming club), Leigh Nugent, is now the head coach of Australia. I rate him as my second dad. We’ve had a laugh together in the last couple of days and it really brings memories back.”

Pooled results

 1999 – Three silver at South Asian Games
 2000 – Fifth in 100m butterfly heat at Sydney Olympics
 2002 – Only Sri Lankan swimmer at Commonwealth Games in Manchester
 2003 – First Sri Lankan swimmer to win gold outside country, at Asian Age Group champs 2004 – Won 2 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze and set 2 new records at South Asian Games
 2004 – Fifth in 100m butterfly heat at Athens
 2006 – Commonwealth Games in Melbourne
 2010 – Sets national record at 50m butterfly in Commonwealth Games in New Delhi

One of Francis’ old swim-mates is former world champion and Olympic medallist Geoff Huegill, who came out of retirement to win through to Wednesday’s 50m butterfly final.

“Before my race I was sitting with Geoff and he said, ‘Are you ready for this?’,” Francis said of his heat on Tuesday.

“I said yes, and he said, ‘100 per cent ready?’. That’s what he’s always like – always concentrate, because there’s no race for tomorrow, there’s only the race for today.”

Finishing sixth in Tuesday’s heat, Francis still has his pet event, the 100m butterfly, to look forward to on Thursday – with the 50m breaststroke as backup.

It will take something special to catapult the 29-year-old to fame outside his home waters.

But it’s not just the Aussies who are looking out for him.

Francis is also a friend of Sri Lanka batsman Mahela Jayawardene, and says he has no problem with cricket getting star billing over other sports at home.

Cricket boost

“Mahela called me and wished me all the very best,” he said.

“It’s always nice to get good wishes from them. It gives you a boost to know that the country is behind you.

“Cricket has been given the main priority as the national sport in terms of technology and funding. It’s out on its own while all the other sports come under one ministry. But it’s not a problem.

“I’m a big fan, I love to play cricket but it came down to a choice between being a left-arm pacer and being a swimmer. I’ve no regrets – there’s nowhere I’d love to be more than in the pool.”

That wasn’t true 20 years ago.

“I was never one of those pool boys, I was always a sea boy,” Francis said.

“My grandfather would take me right out there and just leave me to find my way to the shore.

“My mum used to stand there saying, ‘What’s going on here?’. Later when I was in Australia I used to go to the beach all the time, because I didn’t have to keep it secret from my mum.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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