In the ‘Eternal City’ of Rome, it took Sajan Prakash less than two minutes to create history. The 27-year-old completed the 200m butterfly in 1:56.38, at the Sette Colli Trophy championship on 26 June to become the first swimmer from India to qualify for the Olympics with an ‘A’ qualifying mark.
The Indian went under the ‘A’ (which gives him automatic qualification) standard mark of 1:56.48 needed to make the cut for Tokyo 2020. A day after Prakash’s feat, fellow Indian swimmer Srihari Nataraj made the ‘A’ mark as well, with a 53.77-second finish in a 100m backstroke time trial at the SetteColli (the standard is 53.85s). The time trial was held at the request of the Swimming Federation of India, and is yet to be ratified by FINA (International Swimming Federation).
“Some people might say its luck,” Prakash, still reeling from the media barrage, tells Lounge over the phone from Rome, two days after his historic feat. “But luck is what we make happen sometimes.”
But luck isn’t the word you’d use to describe Prakash’s journey over the past few months.
Prakash, who had achieved the ‘B’ (standby) qualification mark for the Tokyo Olympics in July 2019, suffered a slipped disc in the neck in December that year. After he just about recovered from that, he went to Phuket, Thailand on a FINA scholarship but was stranded there for five months due to the covid-19 pandemic.
“When I was stuck in Thailand during covid, I was staying at a hostel,” Prakash recalls.“The coach would come every morning and conduct drills in the morning and evening. It was a two-storey building; sometimes we’d be running up and down the stairs, sometimes we exercised in the room….we weren’t allowed to step out of the hostel.”
Once flights re-opened, rather than flying home to India, where the swimming pools were still shut, Prakash travelled to Dubai to train under his former coach Pradeep Kumar. When he entered the pool for the first time in five months, in August 2020, Prakash says it felt, “like someone had thrown a stone in the water, went straight down.” Doubts of whether he could find his way back, and anxiety over the injury threatened to pull him down further.
“It was difficult to start from scratch with the shoulder and neck,” he says. “And my event is butterfly, I couldn’t do one stroke till after three months of getting into the water. But I picked it up really well and now here I am, qualified for the Olympics!” Prakash sounds understandably ecstatic.
Born in the Idukki district in Kerala, Prakash entry into sports was due to his mother VJ Shantymol, who was a track athlete. “I used to like athletics as well,” he says. “But athletics and swimming requires different body types, and I knew I had to make a choice.” He starting winning medals in swimming at the national level by the age of 12 and decided to stick to the sport.
Standing at 5’10”, Prakash is not the tallest of swimmers on the starting block. But he has gone on to find his niche in possibly the toughest stroke in swimming, the butterfly, an event that is still defined by the enormous shadow cast by Michael Phelps’ six-feet-seven-inch wingspan.
“I am not that tall, I’m not that big,” Prakash admits. “That’s why athletes from Europe or Americans are dominating the sport. They are built naturally for that. (However) you look at Japanese, they are not that tall or that big but they invented a technique for themselves, they shaped them to world standard and found a way. We need to somehow do it; that needs a lot of scientific backing.”
Even though India has been sending swimmers to the Olympics since the 1948 games in London, the country doesn’t have the infrastructure nor the expertise needed to produce Olympic athletes. As a teenager, Prakash had to shift base from Neyveli, Tamil Nadu, which he believed had one of the best swim teams, to the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre in Bengaluru to give himself a real shot at the sport.
When he travels to Tokyo, Prakash will also become the first Indian swimmer to compete in two successive Olympics. He had qualified for Rio 2016 through the ‘Universality’ quota but had been unable to make it past the heats. “Everything is a learning process,” he says of the 2016 Olympics experience. “When I went to Rio in 2016, I felt like I am nowhere compared to the rest. That’s when I realised (where I stand) and started wanting to be like them, how they worked? What they did?”
He now spends 20 hours—10 sessions of two hours each—a week in the pool and covers a distance of about seven kilometers in each session. Apart from that, there are four sessions in the gym and ‘dry land’ training. Though his daily calorie intake is anywhere between 3,500 and 4,000 calories, he stays away from sweets and his guilty pleasure, biryani. “I love salads, almost as much as biryani now,” he jokes.
Going into the final stretch of competitions before the Tokyo Games, Kumar, his coach, had Prakash focus on speed workouts. “I’m a middle distance swimmer, and I don’t have the sprint ability,” says Prakash, who is also the first Indian to break the Olympic speed barrier. Less than a week ago, he had fallen agonizingly short of the ‘A’ mark. Prakash had clocked 1:56.96s to win the Belgrade Trophy on 19 June. “The six days between Belgrade and the Rome competition, we did a lot of short sprints,” he says. “The first part of the race into butterfly was a bit slow. We tried to focus on speed and get much faster in the first part of the race, which obviously helped in Rome. That’s how we hit the qualifying times.”
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He shaved more than a second off the first half of the race—55.56 seconds in Rome compared to 56.92s in Belgrade—which proved crucial in securing the Tokyo berth. Having earned his place at the Olympics this time around, will the mindset going into it be different?
“Yes,” he asserts. “It’s because I have broken a barrier.” History made, Prakash hopes it ushers in a new era for Indian swimmers. No doubt Srihari Nataraj will be feeling the same.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.