Please tell us about yourself

From cutting-edge swimwear to chic formals: Shikha Tandon‘s intriguing journey from India’s competitive waterbeds to the niche 5555 Tech Center Drive, Colorado Springs address, where she works for the much-feared US Anti-Doping Agency, has reached a temporary completion. The newest research scientist in USADA, who in the past has balanced athletic achievement and academic brilliance, is going to work again, this time stirred into action by her passion for wanting to keep sports clean. Benetton’s ‘B Clean’ may not be the 27-year-old’s fragrance of choice, but it may as well have been her voice.

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Shikha, easy grace and old-world charm, tells TOI Crest from her US base, that the other side of the fence (being part of a drug-testing agency) was about every day challenges that needed to be faced. The articulate swim star said: “It’s not about inconveniencing anybody, least of all the athlete, even though sometimes the timing maybe rough. It’s as much about protecting the health of the sportspersons as the well being of sport. I think what worked for me was the fact that besides being an athlete myself, I have a science background because of which I’ve always understood the necessity of these procedures. The bigger picture came to me rather easily. What needs to be done, needs to be done.”

Why did you choose a career in bio-genetics? It’s complicated and especially for a full-time sports person, it’s almost impossible to dedicate the required time to study science.

I always wanted to work with the USADA. As an athlete, you are exposed to testing and I myself have got tested so often. I thought it’s nice to be on the other side of the procedures. I have long been interested in how the human body works and when it breaks down, how it regroups. That’s probably why I took up science and did biology.

What did you study?

Shikha, light-eyed and skin the colour of mocha, completed her Masters in biotechnology from Jain College , Bangalore in August 2009 before flying out to the US to do a second masters degree in Biology and Biotechnology from Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. Shortly after completing her course earlier in the summer, she applied to USADA. In August she started work as the science programme lead. The Bangalore pro said her job involved reviewing and analyzing data and test results, besides research. Shikha, the first Indian to have made the cut at USADA, said a fair number of her co-workers were collegiate-level athletes themselves. Shikha, whose love for life is matched only by her unwavering focus, lives about three miles from her office. Her work day begins at 8 am and finishes by 5 pm.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

The star swimmer, who dominated a sport with a chequered image at least as far doping goes, cleared drug tests like she did her academic papers without a hiccup. She says: “I always wanted to work with the USADA. As an athlete you get tested so often, I thought it would be nice to be at the other end of these procedures. I’ve long been interested in the functioning of the human body, how it works, when it breaks down and how it regroups. THat’s probably why I studied biology. So even before I joined USADA I could relate to the process from both ends — the tested and the tester.”

Shikha, India’s speed merchant in the pool, whose pet event was the 50m freestyle, is a relative rarity in sport today in that she actively pursued a challenging academic degree even as she trained and competed in different corners of the globe.

What do you love about your job?

In the ’70s and ’80s when sport the world over, more so in India, was at best a part-time job, many an aspiring athlete kept with his education, even pursuing professional degrees, using it as an option that could take them through their post-playing days. Brazilian football great Socrates was a doctor of medicine, who completed his degree while playing professional football. Indian off-spin legend EAS Prasanna is an engineer, an alumnus of the National Institute of Engineering, Mysore. Hockey Olympian Dr Vece Paes was a qualified medical doctor. Retired Canadian ice-hockey player Dr. Randy Gregg was a physician, who still practices in Edmonton. The scenario is a trifle different today. Not only has the pay packet exploded , but sport as a career isn’t something the urban Indian looks at as an option for his child, because of which the playing fields have shifted to rural areas, where aspiring athletes look at sport as an opportunity , a ticket out of back-breaking poverty.

Typically Shikha refused to consider the darker side of a system that is obviously playing catch-up with the cheats, leaving a dark and disturbing trail with agents coming up with few answers and enjoying fewer friendships. She, however, doesn’t look at the hurdles; she’s focused on the hurrah. The sweet-smiling , soft-voiced pro said there were new challenges everyday and one simply needed to get on with it. Interestingly , drug-testing isn’t about getting a job done, because often it doesn’t get done. Take the case of the embattled cycling legend Lance Armstrong who has long been locked in a bitter feud with USADA, but recently threw in the towel, saying enough was enough. Armstrong received huge support the world over, most notably from upcoming cyclists . Shikha politely turned down the offer to comment on the American cancer-survivor , saying she was bound by a ‘confidentiality’ clause. The road for an anti-doping personal is an uphill one, but the spirited young gun won’t be cowed down.

Down-the-line the international medallist plans to use her expertise in drug-testing back home in India. She explained that the system was still at a nascent stage, adding that athletes first needed to be educated in a systematic fashion on the pitfalls of doping. “I want to help set-up a professional system at some point,” she said, “I like to believe that Indian sport is all clean because sport is all about level playing fields, that’s where we all hope to compete, but as an athlete you read and hear otherwise. However, I do believe that there are many who abide by the rules and play clean. Unfortunately, there are some who resort to unethical means in order to enhance their performance.”

Do you think sports must be an integral part of the curriculum these days especially since it equips a youngster to deal with uncertainties of life in a better way?

I believe that sports should be an integral part of academic curriculum. Sport teaches various soft skills in a very real setting on a daily basis that eventually get translated into life skills off the field. Through sports, students learn to set goals and work towards them while coping with pressure and expectations en route to achieving these goals. Once these goals are met, short or long term, it is a great confidence builder that in turn provides the student the belief to achieve further success.