It isn’t every day that you get swimming lessons from the winner of three gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and a five-time World Record holder, Stephanie Rice. The kids at JW Marriott Hotel Aerocity, New Delhi, who registered for the ‘Family by JW’ programme clearly got lucky that the lady was in town to offer them easy-to-follow tips on how to get over their swimming blues and get those strokes right in the pool, which she ruled for a couple of years as a world champion.
Rice, who is familiar with India, having returned back to the country on several programmes and projects in both sports and holistic wellness, has news for us: she is setting up her first, and only swimming academy anywhere in the world, not back home in Australia, but in Bengaluru, at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence, set up by badminton champion Prakash Padukone and cricketer Rahul Dravid. “This has been a dream for several years. I believe India has some excellent swimming potential but the training doesn’t match global standards. If put through the right paces, I am sure Indians will do very well on the global platforms, such as the Olympics.”
Though she has never competed in any form in India, “the only time I came close to it was at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, but had to pull out because of an injury”, Rice felt compelled to come back, again and again, over the years, sometimes for leisure but most times on work. Her first India visit was to Mumbai a few years ago, to check out the swimming scene in the city. “I was also part of the Star Sports commentary team and covered India’s performance during the Rio Olympics and then the Pro-Kabaddi League. The sincerity of the Indian athletes and swimmers and the hard work they put in left me impressed.”
If Indians haven’t made any breakthrough on the global scene, the problem lies in the lack of the right infrastructure, the right kind of programmes to train swimming champs and the lack of quality coaching, says the Aussie swimming champ. “No Indian has even made it to the top 16 in the world or the semi-finals at Olympics. That is because there just isn’t any kind of infrastructure to train them right.” Except a few who can afford to go to the US or Australia to train, most Indian swimmers just trundle along. Nurturing talent
Rice will nurture Indian swimming talent for the 2028 Olympics. “The pool is excellent at the centre in Bengaluru; it is of global standards. I am investing not just my time but even my reputation; this is the only academy I have anywhere in the world that will train potential champions for professional swimming competitions. We are looking at even sponsoring some swimmers to compete at several levels internationally, which is what they need to handle stress at a competitive level.”
She offers some details of the academy: only kids competing at district and state levels will be picked for the programme and then put through a tough training regime. The idea is to create a junior swimming squad. Rice hopes to fly down the Australian Olympic swimming coach to train the coaches in India on how to produce champs, to fill in the training gap in India.
Rice, who offers an 8-week swimming programme back home and is also part of JW Marriott’s ‘Family with JW’ programme across the Asia Pacific, tells me that Indians are changing as far as their attitude to sports is concerned. “You need to keep the emerging champions within India, train them here and build a strong pool of swimmers.”
Among the masterclasses that she curates across the world is the ‘Family with JW’ experience that involves not just swimming but holistic wellness. Rice, who is a vegan and a practitioner of yoga and meditation, believes the best way to inculcate a sporting culture is to ensure that more and more people take to the outdoors – from swimming to tennis, from badminton to cricket or
kabaddi. “Masterclasses like these help us introduce young kids and families to sports in an easy, fun way, which goes a long way in creating the social acceptability of bonding together over say, swimming or a tennis session.” Bleisure travel
For a luxury hospitality hotel such as JW Marriott Aerocity, creating the right infrastructure for BLeisure (Business-cum-leisure) clients has become important. “As much as a solo business traveller, business travellers often travel with families, making it imperative to offer facilities that work for the entire family,” General Manager Nitesh Gandhi tells me. “Across our luxury portfolio of 43 properties in the Asia Pacific, we have seen an increased interest in family-oriented travel, and JW Marriott hotels are responding to this trend with a series of curated experiences unique to each destination, from Rice’s swimming and holistic healing classes to, say, a picnic on the lawn in the right season.”
The Bleisure numbers tell an interesting story. According to the American Expedia Group Media Solutions’ 2018 report ‘Unpacking Bleisure Traveller Trends’, which sampled 2,500 Bleisure travellers from China, Germany, India, the UK, and the US, 60 per cent of business trips turned into one combining leisure. This is consistent with US numbers where Bleisure travel has grown by 40 per cent since 2016 when 43 per cent of US business trips were extended to Bleisure. A Booking.com 2018 survey put the number of Indian travellers extending their business trips to include leisure with family at a high 72 per cent. Indians, in fact, were ranked second among Bleisure travellers across 31 countries, right after Thai travellers (80 per cent) and more than the global average (51 per cent).
Beyond the numbers is the story of how luxury hotels are evolving to create an entirely new paradigm of hospitality for business travellers, who don’t care much for travelling alone, or at least not always, instead bringing with them their families and indulging in short breaks to explore the destinations and hotels they are in.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury. her columns