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2008 Olympian Rehan Poncha says Sajan Prakash can do a first for Indian swimming at Rio 2016

Former Olympian speaks about India's medal chances at Rio 2016, whether any swimmers can win medals, and the rosy future of Indian sports

Rehan Poncha receives his Arjuna Award in 2010

All eyes are on Rio where as many as 118 Indian athletes have headed in hopes of winning a medal and making their country proud. Optimism is at an all-time high since this is the largest ever contingent to have qualified from the country. 6 medals had been won by Indians at the 2012 London Olympics, something that had not happened before, but early signs show that a new record could be created in Brazil.

Former Olympics swimmer Rehan Poncha is an expert panelist of Star Sports for Olympics 2016. He had been part of the 5-member swimming contingent that had represented the country in Beijing in 2008. He offered some insight on how the upcoming Games will pan out for Indians in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda.

Sajan Prakash and Shivani Katariya will be the two swimmers gunning for glory in the waters this time around, the former in the 200-metre butterfly event and the latter in the 200-metre freestyle. Given how the 22-year-old Sajan from Kerala has been performing in recent months, it is a possibility that he shall qualify for the semi-finals and set a new landmark for Indian swimming, thinks Poncha, who himself had competed in the same category at the 2008 Games, finishing 40th.

Poncha says, “Sajan has just broken the 2-minute mark in the 200-metre butterfly, which is fantastic. I know what it takes because I lived and breathed the 200-metre butterfly for ten years, and got to 2 minutes. Full credit to him for having broken that mark. I feel if he can cut off another second and a half, the top 20 in the Olympics and a semi-final berth may be a possibility. To be honest, to do that would be a huge challenge, but to have bettered the 2-minute mark has already proved him to be a world class swimmer.

“Sajan will have to put in another personal best to get to 1:57 or 1:58 and I am very excited to see him do that – it would be a first for Indian swimming.

“As for Shivani, she’s currently doing a 2:04, which is also a fantastic achievement. I do not think Shivani will make the semis, but similar to Sajan, she will be aiming for a personal best. It’s a first Olympic Games for both of them.”

India will win six to eight medals at Rio

An Olympic medal in swimming might still elude India, but Poncha is very hopeful about chances in other sports. He is in the news for unfortunate reasons right now, but wrestler Narsingh Yadav would also have made his list of predicted medallists had the controversy not come up, Poncha confesses.

“Realistically, India will win 6 to 8 medals. A doubles medal in tennis is a solid possibility, Saina (Nehwal) or (PV) Sindhu in badminton, or both of them depending on the draw. We often discount Sindhu because of how Saina has been playing, but she has been brilliant against the Chinese. Our shooters could come away with a bunch, Abhinav (Bindra), who has been there and done that, is leading the challenge. Some medals should come in archery as well, precision sports is our strength.

“Our hockey team is solid, with a perfect mix of youth and experience. Results in 2014 and 2015 at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games and Azlan Shah show this. It’s a little far-fetched considering what we have done in London, but look at our progress! There is Yogeshwar Dutt in wrestling, who is now on his fourth attempt.

“The controversy regarding Sushil and Narsingh was very unfortunate, but the truth remains that a failed dope test is a failed dope test. It is sad if these situations surrounding athletes crop up in the lead up to any event, think of their mental space or that of their team members. Narsingh definitely would have been on my list of predicted medal winners.”

Great that Sajan and others of present generation are breaking our records

The relationship shared between Rehan Poncha and Sajan Prakash is an interesting one – two poster boys of Indian swimming of different decades. When Sajan had been coming up the ranks, Poncha had been one of the best swimmers in the country, an unbeatable opponent. Now, they have pre-race exchanges in a common bid for glory.

Poncha’s national record for the 200-metre butterfly, a time of 2:00.70 , stood for seven years before being broken by Sajan Prakash last year. When Sajan took it one level higher and recorded 1:59.27 recently, Poncha had a hand in the feat as well. 

“Sajan broke my record for the first time during the National Games last year by a fraction, and the first person to call me was our common coach Pradeep Kumar. I am a competitor at heart and right then I wanted to win that record back. But on the other hand, records are meant to be broken. It is a very good thing that the current generation is breaking records, where would Indian swimming go otherwise?

“He spoke to me the evening before the meet where he broke the 2-minute mark, I had a small chat with him and he later wrote on Facebook that it had really helped him. That was sweet of him, and was a sort of validation for me to be able to have calmed him down and put together a decent race plan. Of course, he is working with the best coaches in Bangkok, and I take no credit for his achievements."

Coach Pradeep Kumar flanked by 2016 Olympians Shivani Katariya and Sajan Prakash

"However, to be able to speak to someone who was your competitor at one point of time is bound to be helpful. He never beat me when we ran head to head, but that was because he was still improving and I was at my peak. I am excited about the 200-metre fly and hoping it breaks new barriers, now that we are under the 2-minute mark.”

Unfair that Sandeep did not get to go, but completely fair that Sajan is

There has been some drama in selecting which male swimmer would be selected to represent the country at Rio 2016, owing to the fact that as many as five boys made the B-time criteria but only one could be sent. 27-year-old breaststroke specialist Sandeep Sejwal had a higher FINA point rating at the recently held qualifying meet at Hong Kong, but Sajan was chosen ahead of him because he participated in more events and so had a higher average score.

Poncha says he is sad for his former Olympics teammate Sandeep, but that the decision to select Sajan has his full backing.

"If the federation rule had been to select the qualifier based on FINA points alone, then Sandeep could have gone. But Sajan has put in the best performance at the most recent meet, he is a more versatile swimmer. It is unfortunate that after trying for 8 years after Beijing, Sandeep still cannot call himself a triple Olympian. It is unfair that Sandeep did not get to go, but it is completely fair that Sajan gets to go. In an ideal world, both would have represented India at Rio 2016.”

Despite a spurt in the total Olympics contingent from our country, there has been no similar rise in representation in swimming. However, Poncha says this is an unfair reflection on the state of the sport in the country.

“Changes in rulings have meant that not as many swimmers are qualifying for the Olympics from our country, but the timings being clocked and records being broken at the national level show that Indian swimming is 100% heading in the right direction. Five of our boys had made the B-cut for Olympics this year. Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal, Sajan can all get medals at the 2018 Asian Games. If Shivani and Maana Patel can continue improving like they have been doing, we could feature in the top 6 among the girls as well.”

"I have been training children in the ages 11-14, and the records being broken at that level are also very encouraging.”

Will be a sharp spike in the number of medals India win in near future

Poncha had once been an athlete disgruntled with the lack of attention given to sportsmen other than cricketers and footballers, having once written a widely shared open letter to the Prime Minister regarding this sorry state. However, what he has seen over the past few years has made him change his opinion, says Poncha.

“What a top athlete enjoys in the country today in terms of support and training has definitely improved. I did not have too many hurdles to cross personally. Yes, there was possibly more that could have been done for the sport. Yes, there are sports which are given importance over other sports. But right now it is so much better than what was happening in 2008 – training methods, diet, technology, support.

“Everything around sports is only evolving. It’s very different from ten years ago when a bunch of us walked into the SAI hostel and ate whatever they gave us. The Indian hockey team members for the Olympics have a tailor-made diet designed for each individual. They have gone off to Spain to practice. The archery team has been simulating Rio-like conditions in India – it’s fantastic!

“There are 8-10 young Indian swimmers who are training in South Africa as part of a training camp for the last four years. We’re preparing our kids for 2024. Who would have thought of this in 2000! All this is possible because of the amount of money being pumped into Indian sports, be it from the government or private sponsors. 

"There is going to be a spike in the number of medals India will win in subsequent editions. In terms of preparation, this contingent has the best chance ever by far. The hockey team has been leading from the front by their glories in 2014 and 2015. It's all looking very positive. This comes from somebody who wrote a disgruntled letter to the Prime Minister once. My opinion has since changed.”

After retiring from the swimming circuit, Poncha had himself taken up golf, with the aim of representing the country at this too some day. He thinks the state of Indian golf is also looking very positive, with an Olympics medal not too far off either.

"I took up golf because I wanted to have one other sport to compete in. My training has been interrupted by my work in swimming, but my goals remain the same. I think I shall be ready to compete in the amateur national circuit by January next year.

“Anirban definitely stands a chance of winning a medal. He finished in the top 5 at a Major one year ago, and I have only heard brilliant things about him about his talent. SSP Chowrasia is also as good as Anirban on his day.”

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