It was a case of now or never for India’s Sajan Prakash at the 58th Sette Colli Trophy in Rome last Saturday. Having missed the Tokyo Olympics ‘A’ qualification mark of one minute, 56.48 seconds in the 200m butterfly by 0.48 seconds at the Belgrade Trophy swimming championships in the Serbian capital city the previous Saturday, Prakash had one last meet to book his ticket for Tokyo.
The Kerala swimmer achieved it in Rome with a timing of one minute, 56.38 seconds in the heats, 0.10 seconds quicker than the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT) to become the first Indian swimmer to make the direct cut to the Olympics. It will also be his second straight Olympics, which no other Indian has been able to achieve previously. Prakash participated in the 2016 Rio Olympics in the same discipline, the 200m butterfly through the universality quota, and finished 28th in the heats with 1:59.31s.
Prakash has less than 30 days to take to the pool at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, where he aims to enter the finals. His 200m butterfly event heats are scheduled on July 26. It is back to training from Wednesday after reaching Dubai in an attempt to be better prepared, focus on cutting down on timings and making it to the finals of the Tokyo Games. “That is the realistic goal,” Sajan Prakash tells News18.com.
In this exclusive chat from Rome before departing for Dubai with S Pradeep Kumar, his long-time national swimming coach and Dronacharya awardee, Prakash talks about the tough phase that he went through over the last year or so including a career-threatening injury and how he overcame it while reflecting on his phenomenal achievement of directly making the cut with OQT.
How do you feel to be the first Indian to directly qualify for the Olympics?
I am very emotionally happy because I went through some hardships and obstacles over the last two years. It was as difficult as it could get for me. Many, including some of the people I am closest to, didn’t believe that I could do it. Yet, there were friends I consider as family from the swimming fraternity who supported me and believed in me. I think I made them proud with whatever I did last Saturday. I have not felt this happier in my entire life.
How tough was it for you to meet the OQT in the last available opportunity in Rome?
I don’t know if I can consider the one-year postponement of the Olympics as good luck for me. Of course, it was bad for all the athletes around the world because they must have prepared for this moment. But it was delayed. For me, dealing with an injury last year was the most horrible thing I could face. It took some time to recover and slowly building it from scratch was the challenging part.
Any athlete faces pressure. When leaving it to the last moment, standing on the starting blocks, we always prepare for the worst during training. Even when we say we are so relaxed and have prepared for the moment, when standing on the blocks, at least there is 10% nervousness. It was challenging. I had thoughts like ‘if I don’t do it’, what might happen?’ Keeping aside those thoughts, the processes that my coach and I did through all these months paid. We were confident, we did the work for that moment. We did not have any doubts. Even though I qualified with the narrow margin, we did the work for the ‘A’ qualification timing.
You will be going into your second successive Olympics. How much can you take the Rio experience into Tokyo?
When I went for the first time, I was not open to the world of swimming. It was a big learning process for me to see world-class swimmers. Going there, looking at them, I felt I was nowhere compared to them. I decided that I needed to work harder to reach where they were. That’s when I realised that I needed to work specifically on recovery, diet, whatever was important to make me get there.
How different did you train, especially after injury?
It was a phase from August 2020 when I went to Dubai. I could not swim butterfly for the first three months. I was only swimming freestyle because of the injury. Slowly, we built it up and then we did not have enough time. We started to slowly build up the speed. From February this year, we specifically worked on those skills and strategy for 200m butterfly. When I raced in February in Latvia, I did 1:59.31s. And then on, I did many races in Malaysia with race suits during training. I had to feel light during training. In swimming, we shave to minimise resistance. So, I tapered, didn’t shave and created race simulations to see what timings I clocked. Every time I saw myself improving in training. That was a big positive sign towards me going and doing at the last minute in Rome.
What made you shift the training base to Dubai last year?
During the lockdown, the Swimming Federation of India sent three swimmers to Dubai, funded by Sports Authority of India for two months. That was one of the best decisions I took. Previously, I was stuck in Thailand, I was not having support from a physiotherapist. My old physiotherapist, Richard, was in Dubai at that time and told me to come over to Dubai. I trusted his words and went there. With Pradeep sir being around me, nobody else could have done a better job than him. After two months, Pradeep sir took me into his house and gave me food and shelter. His wife, Gowri aunty took care of me like her own son.
How tough was the injury phase? What happened?
Just before the lockdown in 2020, I was in Thailand. Everything was shut. I was confined to the room and was not recovering. I had a slip disc in my neck and it was radiating towards my left arm. It was career threatening. Though I had good physios around me, somehow I think they did not diagnose properly. Some said it was neck, some others said it triggered from the shoulder. I thought it was due to overuse and stress over the years. I was very frustrated, feeling irritated that I was not able to swim with the injuries. There were times when I wanted to give up, but positive people around me helped me overcome those moments.
What has been the turning point of your career?
The 2015 National Games in Kerala in which I won six gold and two silver medals. That made me look up to the international standards and grow more in terms of the timings. I qualified for Rio with 1:59 and here I am two days doing 1:56. Once you taste the Olympics, you want to do it again and again. Every sportsperson has that instinct. Every time we go to a meet, we do well but we want to achieve more. If I had not achieved 1:59.37 (Rio timings, finished 28th in the heats) that time, maybe 1:56.38 would not have been possible.
You were mainly a freestyle swimmer and later focussed more on butterfly. What made you change?
I had a 50:50 belief when I first changed from free to fly. At the end of the day, we made it happen. I still do freestyle. I had some issues with my left shoulder where I had no power to pull initially. But slowly I developed strength around the arm and the neck. It is much better. When I can swim this OQT, I think I have regained all the strength from the past.
Who are your favourite swimmers and do you get to exchange notes with them?
There is no chance of exchanging notes with the swimmers as they don’t talk during competitions. They are more focussed on their targets. They will be rarely seen outside. I got the opportunity to race with my favourite, Michael Phelps. He swam the same event in Rio. And also Daiyo Seto from Japan. We have swum together many times. Even during the Asian Games, we swam next to each other (Prakash finished fifth in the 200m butterfly final with 1:57.75 at the 2018 Jakarta Asiad. Seto won gold in 1:54.53).
What is your goal beyond Tokyo?
I want to do my best in the next Asian Games (Hangzhou, China, Sept 10-25, 2022). And if everything goes well, I will focus on the next Olympics. (Paris 2024).
How are the facilities for swimming in India and what needs to be done for the elite swimmers?
The facilities are not enough. They are not that bad, though. We need to have a process where we should have a national team working consistently together with everyone – the coach, physios, masseurs, etc. – coming together. If we are consistently into that process, our body adapts to them and that’s when excellence happens. We are all doing these things individually. The federation is doing its best. As swimming is not so recognised in India, we don’t get that much support from the government. Now that I have started something two days back (meeting OQT), it has to progress from here. There is no looking back. The young swimmers have progressed very well. If we have the best scientific facilities in India, we don’t have to go elsewhere and athletes won’t have to face anything financially. Better for us if we can train peacefully in India.
Now that you have done what no Indian has done before, how would you stay away from the distractions?
I should not take that pride too much in my head. Pradeep sir will push me in the workout. I keep goals realistically –.I want to qualify for the finals. After these years, I know what I can see in front of me. I can see in front of me the semifinals and finals in Tokyo. We will train to get better. Like I said earlier, we prepare for the worst.
How much does coach Pradeep Kumar push you?
You won’t believe, sometimes I would not want to do it and he makes me do it. That built the confidence in our workouts. Sometimes, I felt like not wanting to do anything but Pradeep sir has this magic to make us do it and survive those workouts. And when you are in worse conditions and do it, you gain confidence. When you are fresh and go into a race, it helps you so much.
What do you do when you are not swimming?
I only swim. I don’t do anything else. I like to watch movies, love tennis. I am doing a masters in sports science at ISST online. I want to learn more about sports science. I learn from my role models and take the good qualities from the people when they do good and also learn from others not to make the same mistakes that others did. It is not necessarily about learning from the greats. Even the common people have been some of my biggest inspirations.