Stephanie Rice remembers little from the Hindi lessons she took two years ago. But over the past few weeks the Australian has learnt to watch her stride in the bright-pink sari she got to drape for Diwali festivities and reel off a clutch of Indian star kabaddi player names without cheat notes.
It isn't the most obvious combination -- kabaddi and a triple gold medallist Olympic swimmer. She can tell from the startled tones. When approached to base herself in Mumbai for three months for a role as TV anchor and host for the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), she had no idea what the sport was about. "But I went, 'Wow! three months in India. That sounds like a dream,'" Rice tells ESPN.
Since she stepped out of the pool and pulled the pin on her competitive career in 2014, Rice has focused on pushing herself out of snug, familiar terrain. Earlier this year, she was handpicked by American TV personality Khloe Kardashian to be a part of her size-inclusive denim brand campaign. She was also brand ambassador for a 10 km run in Bengaluru last year and made appearance as a TV studio expert in India during the Rio Olympics. "You know, that's my big focus. Because I don't feel like I'm doing one specific thing that makes me fulfilled. I like doing a diverse range of things, whether it's brand ambassador work where I get to use my insights and opinions and leverage that to a bigger audience. I really like that."
So just how did this former elite swimmer manage to wrap her head around this ancient Indian sport largely alien to the average sports fan in the West?
"Just the diversity of the skills kabaddi requires -- to be strong, flexible, agile and have great footwork -- I think that's what makes a real athlete."
Rice is willing to slip in a confession.
"Before I came to India I had seen highlights packages but not like full matches. Also, when I watched it I didn't know any of the rules so I didn't know what to make of it. I reckon it took me two-and-a-half weeks of real intense learning, watching matches and asking people questions. Even now, I don't feel like I've totally got it."
For the uninitiated, it's easy to label kabaddi as a 'simple' sport with questionable professional sport credentials. Rice says she too veered briefly in that direction at the outset. "I felt the same when I didn't understand the rules or skills involved. Now that I now way more about it, I think that's totally false. You could say the same thing if you watch basketball for the first time. Just the diversity of the skills kabaddi requires -- to be strong, flexible, agile and have great footwork -- I think that's what makes a real athlete."
Now into its sixth season packaged as a glitzy, televised league, kabaddi has breached record viewing numbers in the non-cricket landscape. The PKL 5 finale touched 26.2 million viewers, second only to the 39.4 million viewers who tuned in for the IPL 10 final. At the end of last season's PKL, gross impressions stood at 313 million with a watch time of 100 billion minutes.
"For me," Rice says, "the challenge is the anchoring role itself because I've never really done that. I've always been the expert on shows so this was all new. Understanding how to make the actual broadcast good, and do the talk-backs. Since we're shooting a live show sometimes, it just gets tough to remember which player was for which team or what their skills were. Hopefully that will become more automatic with more preparation before each show and then I can have a more organic conversation with my expert on the show and make the broadcast more relatable to the audience."
It doesn't help that there are 181 players across 12 teams in the league. Sometimes, Rice says, for her "the player names all get rolled into one". It's also when she jokes about the futility of her diligent Hindi lessons -- around the time of the 2016 Olympics -- that she remembers little of.
Unlike the ready reckoner of player names and glossary of kabaddi terms that she's had to work hard to get on top of, there's an area of sport that she thinks comes naturally to her -- mental conditioning. She struggled with it herself after retiring at the age of 25 following multiple injuries and surgeries.
"After finishing sport I kept asking myself, 'What am I going to do now.' Athlete transition, I think, is a really big topic now. The mental side of sport is something I'm very passionate about and it hasn't been addressed professionally yet. For me it was about focusing on that, making myself the expert and learning it all so that I can share the things I have learnt with other athletes. In PKL, these players are literally playing every day so they need that mental support. I think at some stage I can help with that."
Since its first season in 2014, the league itself has grown not just in scope and breadth but also in its spending purse. Patna Pirates' Rs 12.8 lakh buy of Rakesh Kumar was the highest in season one as opposed to Rs 1.51 crore that Haryana Steelers paid to get raider Monu Goyat on their team this year. Rice sees what this could mean for the unknown athlete thrust under the blinding lights of fame and big money. "For many of these players who come from small, humble beginnings, to be now to be paid as professional athletes, make all this money, have all this pressure and all the media and everything -- it's a lot to take in a very short time," says Rice. "It's something even I struggled with coming from Australia at the start of my career. So I'd love to have a one-on-one chat with these players and help them deal with all of this."
The week-long PKL Mumbai leg has just gotten under way and Rice is looking forward to conducting a few pool sessions with the players. She also has grand plans for India and a swimming academy tops that list. "I've been familiar with India in terms of swimming ability throughout my career and know a few of the Indian swimmers who have trained outside of the country. I don't see why India couldn't do everything here. To grow the depths of the entire swimming community and really be a big player on the international level, that's something I'm really passionate about and hope to build that through academies or work or TV or whatever it is. We want to be ready as soon as the 2020 Games are over so that there's depth and hopefully some really good quality swimmers ready by 2024," she says.
Of course that's still a while away.
Right now, kabaddi has taken over Rice's Instagram like a new crush. She's gone from googling kabaddi to being able to tell Pardeep Narwal apart from Ajay Thakur and a raid from a super raid. Or as Rice herself puts it with mild relief, the hardest part is certainly over. Now all she wants to do is hop on for a fun ride.