She completed the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon last week six minutes faster than she did last year. Her time of 2:03:31 compares favourably with the 2:09:57 she clocked in 2016 and even more with the 2:21:58 she was credited with in 2015. For someone who has more than a few sub-two-hour half marathons to her credit, the respected swimming coach has nothing to prove to anyone.
Manisha Khungar swims long distances each week besides coaching a variety of trainees, including those who are preparing for or have completed endurance events like IronMan and UltraMan. The Gurgaon-based 48-year-old mother of two, who covered the 21km in Delhi’s iconic road racing event in good time, sees sport as a go-to and enjoyable part of her life.
With little to do in Iraq where she spent her school years in the mid-80s, she took to swimming and distance running to kill time. “Running short distances didn’t appeal to me. And there were no competitive races back then,” she points out, indicating that her sport training continues to be based on the joy she derives from sport.
“They remained my passion and did not become the source of my bread and butter as I picked up a marketing job. A shift to New York saw the New York City Marathon and the Chicago Marathon come and go. One of my biggest assets that my passion pre-dates the running trend in India that caught up over the past decade or so,” she says, taking her first sip of coffee.
Manisha Khungar has been a swim coach for nearly two decades. “At first, I gave some tips to college mates and then started to charge them to earn extra pocket money,” she recalls. When she moved to Amsterdam for her Masters, she ran, swam and coached. “I started teaching in the Dutch capital to develop rapport with others.”
Having been in the forefront of those wanting to bring triathlon events to India, she now coaches a bunch of triathletes who are training for the IronMan and UltraMan. “I see them as fellow athletes – weight-trainers, earlier – who have now leaned out and are embarking on their own journeys. I have learnt a lot,” she says.
She has been helped by her belief that while healthy competition is good, fitness as a lifestyle is better. “I have not got into being competitive (with other coaches). I have age on my side and the maturity. Things like jealousy and egos don’t perturb me. The athletes I train are already strong, heading as they are to the Boston Marathon or multiple IronMan events,” she says.
She has recently experimented successfully with distance coaching with video analysis as a tool. “It’s not a problem, watching the videos of my trainees and coaching them. Of course, it is challenging but when people in Hyderabad, for example, were preparing for a triathlon and needed assistance, I used video analysis to help them. It worked well,” Manisha Khungar says.
Then again, the range of her trainees is very diverse. From senior executives who want to swim when on holiday to men over 40 who choose swimming as a means to stay healthy, from women who prefer AquaFit classes to avoid exercising in a gym to pre-teens and senior citizens, she deals with a wide universe, “I read a lot and love to learn and explore all the time.”
“I don’t coach those on the national swimming circuit since my coaching is different. I do help them shave off a few seconds but I direct them to coaches who are cut out for that,” she says, indicating that children whose parents see value in sport, learn well when they come early. “They are confident. The newer clients are the triathletes.”
She has been around long enough to recognise the risks that come along with the transformation of sporting pursuit from passion and pleasure to serious competitive business. “I believe it is important to keep the joy of the sport alive for the rest of your life,” she says. “I always add a fun element to my sessions. Of course, I won’t let you move from paddle kicks until you get it right.”
Manisha Khungar also works to enhance her trainees’ self-belief. “You have to believe that you can do it. I get some people who are scared of water. Unless they believe that they can do it, they won’t be able to achieve the swimming goals they set for themselves. I draw joy from making a difference to people’s lives,” she says.
Ask her if there are days when she feels like she would not want to be coaching and watch her eyes narrow in agony. “I attempted a downtime in the wake of a shuffle in my life last year and I had withdrawal symptoms and suffered immensely. Coaching is a very natural process now. When the trainees do well and message me or do a social media post, it does give me a kick,” she says.
Talk of social media does bring the conversation to the trend of runners, cyclists and swimmers making frequent updates on social media about their workouts. “I have no hard and fast rule. I just tell my trainees that anything they do should be a part of their lives and not any different,” she says, smiling broadly.
“I don’t attempt behavioral change in my clients since I am with them for a specific purpose for a maximum of three hours some days of the week. But I have noticed that the discipline needed to train in those three hours does bring about some transformation. The way I work is to make you change yourself,” she says, completing her second cup of coffee.
A few weeks before the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, Manisha Khungar was cheering competitors in the HDFC Millennium City Marathon in Gurgaon as its Ambassador. From her parents’ home in Agra, she cheered a bunch of Indians attempting the Langkawi IronMan in Malaysia. “I invest in my trainees, big time. I enjoy their journeys as much as they do themselves,” she signs off.