Sport, interrupted: An Olympian's swimming academy struggles to stay afloat

The period of March to the end of May is usually peak season for Nisha Millet's business, but not this year, as the coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of swimming pools. Nisha Millet

The Covid-19 pandemic hasn't just stopped sporting competition, it has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, ESPN will look across the sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

This is usually the time of year Nisha Millet barely finds time to be around her twins. The ten pools she runs across Bengaluru are stuffed with kids on summer vacation, parents and toddlers dawdling through introductory classes, and state- and national-level swimmers pacing themselves. Not now. Since the nationwide lockdown started on March 25, Millet, who represented India at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has had to shut her coaching facilities, and watch her income dry up.

"In terms of business, we are at zero right now," says Millet. "March (to) end-May is the high season. Swimming is perceived as a summer camp kind of sport. It's slowly changing in places like Bengaluru because of heated pools and more people wanting to swim through the year but 60 percent of our profit still comes in during summer and this year we've lost that entirely."

The big blow: School's out, overheads aren't

The bulk of trainees at Millet's academy belong to the 'Learn-to-Swim' programme -- group sessions across beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, contributing 80 percent of her total revenue. Last year, she had 4000 people signing up for it. These are batches that run for 15 sessions, with weekday batches running for three weeks and weekend batches for eight weekends. In addition to the immediate hit, with all pools shut, there's the very likely chance that potential trainees will not want to join even when pools reopen, given the fear of crowds.

Unlike rates for competitive swimmers (she currently trains roughly 300 of them), which are kept low since they train through the year, the beginner group classes are priced slightly higher and a fall in enrolment numbers -- expected even after pools are allowed to open -- would have a telling effect on revenue.

In addition, Millet's academy also offers one-on-one classes, monthly lap swims and open water sessions for triathletes. "I have five triathletes training for the World Half Ironman Championship (scheduled to be held in Taupo, New Zealand, in November). Endurance sport was picking up really fast and we had more numbers wanting to join before this halt came about," she adds.

But the more immediate, pressing worry for Millet is paying for overheads.

She has huge electricity bills to foot and 30 coaches to pay, in addition to paying maintenance staff and cleaning crew. "A majority of our pools are outdoor, temperature-controlled. Even if pools are unused, we have to keep the filtration on. We can't empty out the water because we are talking about 20 plus lakh litres per pool." It costs roughly Rs. 4 lakhs each month to maintain a 25m pool, Rs. 6 lakhs for a 50m pool. It helps that most of Millet's pools -- she has 10 in all -- are 25m long.

What has come to her rescue, though, is a sustainable business model that cuts down on rental charges. Her home doubles up as the academy office and she has a regular lease for only two of her 10 pools. The remaining eight are operated on a profit-sharing agreement with the facilities they are housed in. "The Hilton hotel in Bengaluru (Domlur), for example, handles the maintenance of the pool. If we have classes to conduct, we rent the pool for a couple of hours. Of course our profits are a lot less since we split our training fees with them but, in the present situation, it is a relief," she says.

The academy, Millet says, survives on a revenue-expense model and receives no funding. "From next month, our higher-ranked staff may have to take pay-cuts. The management is not drawing any salaries for now. A waiver on rents for a few months and some funding to offer our coaches training for higher certifications would help. People with their own swim academies are functionaries in the federation so they look out for themselves. We would rather work with private swimming and sports academies to try and revive the swimming scene, especially through programs like 'Learn to Swim'".

"In terms of business, we are at zero right now. Sixty percent of our profit comes in during the summer and this year we've lost that entirely." Nisha Millet

The first response

To keep coaches and competitive swimmers at the academy upbeat, Millet got everyone to wear their swimsuits and caps, even if it's in their living rooms, to send across pictures and created a nice, happy collage. "I think everyone misses the pool so much that even changing into swim gear was exciting for them. For me, it's a first in 29 years that I'm not kicking about in a pool during summer."

During this lockdown, Millet has been sending out physical workout plans to her trainees apart from online sessions with coaches.

Next: Longer hours, staggered batches

Once the lockdown is lifted and normalcy makes a staggered comeback, Millet plans to stretch the operational hours of her facilities, starting early in the morning and running late into the evening to space out her batches. She is also looking at cutting down training fees keeping in mind the general financial crunch, have pool users sign health declarations along with temperature checks, sanitised changing rooms, disinfecting door handles, handrails, pool ladders and further lowering coach-trainee ratio.

"We'll be stopping daily access where people can just come in and use the pool and have monthly access instead," she says. Her academy has one of the lowest coach-trainee ratios in the country, one coach for every eight students, unlike public pools which are overfilled at 1:20, according to Millet. She intends to further reduce the ratio to 1:6 or 1:5, and have two people in each lane on opposite sides. "There are academies who have up to 32 people per pool and that kind of practice probably won't fly anymore. Also, if a trainee is sick, even if it's a light cold they will be advised to stay away and offered unlimited time to recover lost sessions."

Unlike most sports where you can recreate some aspects, swimming by definition requires a pool. "Unfortunately, you can't really coach swimming online," says Millet. "Without getting into the pool ,there's no learning. It would be great if SAI allows pools and gyms to open with social distancing and sanitisation measures in place. There will certainly be lesser crowds at pools than at liquor stores today. Sport needs to be resumed and hopefully soon."

It helps that experts believe swimming is one of the safer activities now and the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a minimum chlorination level of 15 mg/litre being sufficient to kill enveloped and non-enveloped viruses. Indeed, the Karnataka Swimming Association is pushing for an early return to the pool for competitive swimmers and recently submitted a memorandum to the Karnataka Chief Minister requesting the same. The problem, Millet says, is determining who falls under the category. "How do you define competitive swimmers? There are lots of six, seven-year-olds who are competitive swimmers, so if there is a directive allowing it, pools are going to be full."

Plan B: New ventures, motivational speaking

Millet has been thinking of diversifying her business and adding revenue streams to be able to stay afloat. "Once pools open, people may prefer us to come over to their apartment complexes because they're more confident of those around them. It could be the way forward," she says.

She's also been approached by a few friends calling on assistance in maintaining pools in their respective gated communities. It's an area she is planning to intensify focus in the months ahead -- pool maintenance services. Her husband, Bikranjit Chatterjee, is a qualified expert having trained at the Institute of Swimming Pool Engineers (ISPE), a UK-based certifying authority. "Up until now, people didn't care much for maintenance of their swimming pools beyond having someone put in chlorine. Now, it's likely to tilt towards willingness to hire experts. My husband earlier had a company dedicated for pool maintenance but academy work got busy and he had to shut it down for a while. This seems like a good time to get back in."

And then there's the chance to foray into motivational speaking on a regular, paid basis to supplement her income. "I've done a lot of motivational gigs earlier and a few webinars in the past few weeks. Maybe if this current scenario continues, I'll start offering paid, online classes."

The long-term scenario

Even if pools open up in the next three months, Millet pegs a complete return to usual business only around early next year. She is piggy-banking on the goodwill of her 16-year-old brand. "Even if we open up in July, we will give members time till January to finish their classes. Around 10 percent of parents have written to us saying they're pulling their kids out of group classes and asking for a refund. Our toddler classes could be the worst hit."

The silver lining in this gloom, as Millet sees it, is a likely spurt in fitness drive. "I think people have realised that fitness is crucial in raising immunity levels and particularly with swimming, one's lung strength grows. The key will be to constantly document and educate people on safe practices. Of course, I'll make sure my six-year-old daughters are swimming before I ask other kids to join," she says. "When this phase ends, we're counting on people to grow sick of their terraces and balconies and want to hit the outdoors, run, swim and just embrace normalcy."