The sun was shining brightly on the Ameya Classic Club's International Roller Sports Centre in Virar.
It was the 50th Speed Roller Skating National Championships and Team Maharashtra’s final member had joined them just two days before the event. The final-year engineering student had decided this was going to be his last skating event.
“I noticed that the sport wasn’t developing and my friends who were in engineering were actually settling for good money and excellent jobs. As far I was concerned, I was just skating,” says Nikhilesh Tabhane about a difficult phase in his career. He turned up on the freshly laid track for his favourite event, the 300-metre relay, for the final time in his career. “There was only one thing in my mind; if I clock in a good time or set a national record even, I will be always remembered.”
When he finished the race, and looked up at the giant screen, his eyes lit up. He had set a national record of 25.82 seconds! “I remember the loud cheer and the applauds. This was the first time I saw the audience going crazy over timings in a skating event in India. My family was in the stands and it was just a great feeling.” The national record changed his life. “I got two more golds after this event. The Ameya Classic Club decided to sponsor me and that really helped me pursue the sport I love.”
Six years after the national record, Nikhilesh is a prominent name in the roller skating community in India with 31 Gold medals to his name in National championships. He holds the current national records of 24.90 secs in 300-metre and 16.85 secs in the 200-metre category. Until 2016, India had never won a senior medal in any international competition. Nikhilesh changed that when he along with Dhanush Babu and Vikram Ingale won a bronze at the 3000-metre time trial event in the Asian Skating Championship in Lishui, China.
Nikhilesh’s road to success was not a chariot ride but one that was full of hardships and struggle. “I knew there were always going to be challenges when I decided to pursue my passion. Besides the financial challenge, which meant there was a lack of stability, there was no recognition. Skating never had an organized set-up in our country. Wherever you go, you only get to hear negatives about the sport.”
While he was dealing with all the negativities, he was focused on a greater goal. “My father used to tell me, ‘Whenever people talk about speed skating, they should take your name. If you want to be different, if you want to achieve greatness, you need to do something substantial.’ I knew that I had to work hard to uplift the sport in this country.”
He opened his own academy, Nikhilesh Tabhane Skates World, with an aim to promote roller skates in India. Now around 2000 skaters train in over five different centres across the country. The hub for skaters in India is also a breeding ground for champions as India’s fastest skaters in U19, U15 and U12 categories all belong to his academy. “I ensure that the training is economical so that people can afford it. Last year, we had invited 28-time world champion American speed skater Joey Matia to Mumbai to spend time with all our skaters.” He has also set up an academy in Colombia.
“In India, the skaters are only trained to run and not to skate. But they need to be told about their hip position and to finish their race. They need to know the importance of their last stretch. It is about how smooth you are.”
He has always been close to his family. His father Niranjan Tabhane, introduced him to skating when he was just six years old. Nikhilesh is really close to her mother, Kalpana Tabhane who has always supported him.“My parents have been a constant pillar of support throughout my career.” His elder brother Nishant Tabhane was also a skater but he started focusing on his studies in order to support his younger brother. Now he manages the academy along with Nikhilesh's childhood friend, Atul Khandekar. He dedicates his success to his coach, Pravin Deshpande.
With all the ups and down in his career, his biggest strength has been his passion for the sport. “I remember the first few days of my skating lessons, I used to sleep with my skates on! That passion has stayed with me ever since.”