MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - India's Virdhawal Khade is being hailed as a swimming sensation in his medal-starved country after the 16-year-old qualified for three events at the Beijing Olympics.
The schoolboy achieved the 200 meters freestyle mark at the world championships in Melbourne last year when he became the youngest Indian to do so at the age of 15.
Earlier this month he added the 50m and 100m, raising hopes in some quarters of boosting India's miniscule Olympic tally, if not in 2008 then in 2012 at the London Games.
Despite being the world's second-most populous nation, India have only won four individual medals, none of them gold, in their Olympic history since sending their first team to the Summer Games in 1928.
Hopes for Beijing have already been badly hit by the failure for the first time in Games history of their men's hockey team, eight-times winners, even to qualify.
Khade's personal bests compare well with swimmers of his own age, though fall a couple of seconds shy of world record marks.
But his coach Nihar Ameen told Reuters: "In terms of natural talent, not only measured against others I have worked with, but virtually any swimmer in his age group that I have seen around the world, he is a prodigy."
The son of a sugar businessman from Kolhapur in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, Khade took to the pool as a four-year-old in his home town.
In 2006 he shifted to Ameen's centre in Bangalore after the coach spotted his talent at a national competition.
Ameen said: "He has natural speed and competes well under pressure. How well he does on the highest platform of his sport depends on the maturity of his strategy, which is a work in progress in his training schedule."
India's best known swimmer Khazan Singhwon won a silver in the 1986 Asian Games, but only a handful from the cricket-mad country have ever met the Olympic qualification standards.
In Beijing, Sandeep Sejwal and Ankur Poseria, who studies and trains in the U.S., will join Khade in the Indian team.
Although full of praise, the Indian swimming community is wary about expecting too much too soon from the muscular 1.90-metres, 80-kg Khade.
"At his age.... he is the hope of the country," Swimming Federation of India secretary Virendra Nanavati told Reuters.
"If he continues this progress, I am sure he'll be among the top 30 swimmers in Beijing."
Khade, whose father played state-level basketball, said his goal in Beijing would be to post new personal bests.
"As things stand today, I am not in medal contention. It will be a very good experience and it will be my privilege to race against the best in the world," he told Reuters.
"I will be really happy if I can make it to the semi-finals, which is the top 16."
Ameen believes Khade, who trained for three months in Australia in the Games build-up, should look to learn from the Beijing experience and target the 2012 London Olympics.
"That's when he will be in top physical shape," said Ameen.
Khade's immediate focus is the world youth championships in Mexico in July.
"It is a great opportunity to race against swimmers my age and I am positive of winning a few medals," he said.
Editing by Dave Thompson