By Harihar Swarup
Last year when the pandemic caused countries to shut their borders, Sajan Prakash was stuck at his training base in Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre. The lockdown in Thailand was so strict that, forget about swimming, Prakash could not even venture out of his room for close to three months.
Prakash would still train, practicing his strokes on the bed for the first two months and then in an inflatable pool where other swimmers of the centre also took a dip just to get a feel of water.
Qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics seemed a distant dream but Sajan wanted to stay tuned in whatever way possible, knowing well that at 27 it could be his last chance to qualify for the Olympics. Five years ago, he competed at the Rio Olympics in 200m butterfly but through a universality quota.
That is how a handful of Indian swimmers have made it to the Olympics so far—through B qualification that doesn’t guarantee a direct entry but keeps the swimmer as standbye, or a universality quota in one event if no Indian swimmer qualifies.
In a sport that fetches the second biggest chunk of medals at the Olympics after athletics, India has no presence. But in the last couple of years, a young crop of swimmers have pushed the boundary, coming closer and closer to achieve direct qualification for the Olympics.
Sajan on Saturday finally broke the glass ceiling with a blazing performance in the pool in the 200m butterfly, becoming the first Indian swimmer to qualify for Olympics with an ‘A’ standard mark. Sajan timed 1:56.38 at the Sette Colle meet in Rome, going past the A qualification mark of 1:56.48.
“We got a bit emotional once we saw the timing. He has stayed in my house in Dubai after the lockdown last year and trained with me. Me and my wife treat him like our son,” said his coach S Pradeep Kumar from Rome.
It was the last meet to achieve qualification and we just thought we won’t take any pressure, if it happens it happens,” he said.
Sajan came close to the A mark in Belgrade just six days back when he clocked 1:56.96. “I have been getting closer to the qualifying mark and I was confident. It was my last chance and I just put all my effort into doing it here. My coach Pradeep sir and I planned my tapering in such a way that I would peak at these two events in Serbia and Rome,” Sajan added.
Sajan was among eight Indian swimmers who attained B qualification mark for Tokyo Olympics, and he and Srihari Nataraj looked determined to make history in Tokyo. In Rome, Nataraj came agonisingly close to making the A grade, clocking 53.90 seconds and bettering his own national mark but he missed the cut by mere .05 sec (A standard 53.85s.) The swimming federation had sent Nataraj’s name for a universality place quota for Tokyo, but now that Sajan has qualified for India, Srihari will not get that. “India has a representation now in the pool and Srihari’s only chance is through B qualification mark,” said Swimming Federation of India federation secretary general Monal Chokshi.
The magnitude of the moment can be understood if one looks at India’s performance in the pool. Even at the Asian Games, India has won just one gold, bagged by Sachin Nag in the 100m freestyle at the inaugural New Delhi edition in 1951. Two bronze medals came from the last eight editions, the latest being Sandeep Sejwal’s bronze in the 2014 Asiad in Incheon, South Korea.
“This a historic achievement,” says Khajan Singh, winner of silver at the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. “Our swimmers have been trying for a long to breach the A mark. They had nobody to look up to when it came to the Olympics, now Sajan’s feat would inspire a generation,” said Singh.
Behind the remarkable effort of Sajan are years of hard work and dedication.
“He has worked so hard to see this day. A lot of effort has gone behind this. It is a big day for us,” said Sajan’s mother VJ Shantymole from Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu. Shantymole, a sprinter who represented Kerala and was Inter-university champion in her heyday, has been bearing all expenses for her son’s training.
“It’s me and Sajan in my family and all my salary goes for his training. Before the Rio Olympics he could go for meets in Europe because we could afford it. It is so expensive,” says Shantymole.
A big talent, Sajan won six gold medals at the 2015 National Games held in Kerala. He moved to Phuket the same year to train on a FINA scholarship programme. He reached the final in the Asian Games at Jakarta in 2018. He also won a silver medal in 100m butterfly at the 2018 Asian Indoor Games. All this while he kept coming back to his coach Pradeep Kumar, the former national coach who had also trained him in Bengaluru.
“He moved to Bengaluru at a young age and since then Pradeep sir has looked after him. I am so happy that he finally achieved his dream today,” said his mother. (IPA Service)