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Rio Olympics 2016: Can Sajan Prakash swim against the high tide at the Games?

Odds will be stacked against this young Indian swimmer who would do well to imbibe the good training habits from the best in the business.

sajan prakash
Sajan Prakash

Some 8 summers ago two athletes just as talented as Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar had their first taste of an Olympic pool at Beijing, as raw teenagers Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal set the pool on fire without winning medals and therefore were not spoken of in the same breadth as Vijender and Sushil.

National records were broken by some distance and a new dawn had seemingly arrived in Indian swimming as 4 Indians qualified for the Olympics for the first time ever. At least if India’s top coach Nihar Ameen’s words were to be believed, India had unearthed very strong medal prospects for the subsequent London Olympics.

That phase from 2008-2010 which also overlapped with the Commonwealth youth games and of course the Delhi Commonwealth Games, saw the maximum number of national records broken, not just by these two but others like Rehan Poncha and the ageless Richa Mishra.

Reason being excellent training and infrastructure support to these swimmers due to the upcoming Delhi CWG - 2010. Post CWG the support system seemed to have tapered off and so have the performances.

Brief sparks were provided at the Guangzhou Asian Games bronze by Virdhawal Khade’s bronze and likewise by Sandeep Sejwal’s bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Whereas Sejwal continues to plough a lone burrow in breaststroke across 50/100/200 metres, Khade now shuttles between service and swimming, yet he manages to win whenever he participates at any national level event.

To their credit, both these swimmers maintained their standards up to the London Olympics and achieved the B qualifying standards. Why A.P.Gagan was sent ahead of either of them is a million dollar question, however.

This probably broke Khade’s resolve to focus solely on swimming and he decided to move on in life. All credit to the Swimming Federation of India for such inept handling of our best swimming talent ever.

Over the last few years, some fresh talents like Saurabh Sangvekar (across the longer freestyle distances) and Aaron D’souza have been threatening to emerge without quite reaching the levels set by Khade and Sejwal. There is some potential seen in girls like Damini Gowda and Maana Patel, but their best is still some distance away.

Despite such a bleak scenario there are as many as 5 Indian swimmers who have achieved the ‘B’ qualification mark for the Rio Olympics.

1. Sandeep Sejwal: 100 & 200m breast

2. Virdhawal Khade: 50 Free

3. Supriyo Mondal: 200 Butterfly

4. Saurabh Sangvekar: 400m free

5. Sajan Prakash: 200m butterfly, 400m and 1500m freestyle

The above qualifications are a testimony to the hard work put in by the swimmers and their coaches all on their own accord. The quest of A qualification standard led 4 of the above 5 to Hong Kong Open but it turned out to be too high a hurdle to cross.

Finally, it was the versatile Kerala swimmer Sajan Prakash who got the nod ahead of Sejwal inspite of fewer FINA points. A member of the Glasgow Commonwealth and Incheon Asian Games, Prakash came of age at the Indian National Games 2015 with 6 gold and 3 Silvers.

Specialising in the shorter distances in both the free and fly, Sajan has gradually incorporated the longer 400/800 and 1500 free into his repertoire. Currently, he holds national records in 1500 free and the 200 fly.

Also Read: Interview with Sajan Prakash: "FINA recognized my talent and sponsored my training for World Championship"

Last year FINA recognized Prakash’s talent and offered him a full scholarship to train in Thailand for the World Championships. Over the last year Sajan has been regularly lowering his own national record in 1500, firstly at the nationals where he bought it down to 15:55 and then to 15:45 at the Kazan World Championships.

He had expressed his desire to shave off another 30 odd seconds by Rio but he has only managed to maintain 15:45 in all the subsequent events. Sajan held the 400 free national record of 3:57 set last year at the Asian Age group championships up until the Hong Kong Open where Sangvekar dropped the record to 3:56:82.

But it’s the 200 fly in which he has been provided with an opportunity to represent India at the Rio Games.

Sajan was at his best in the Hong Kong Open, as he became the first Indian to go below 2 minutes, that too twice. In the process, he obliterated Rehan Poncha’s 7-year-old record of 2:00:70 by clocking 1:59:72 in the heats and then broke his own national record by clocking 1:59:27 in the finals.

His finals timing is ranked 119th in the world in 2016. This is the closest an Indian swimmer has got to the top 100 since the relatively heady days of 2008-09 courtesy Sejwal and Khade. The 100 fly saw him hit a personal best of 54.70 seconds, still some distance behind Khade’s national record of 52.77 seconds.

Where does Sajan stand in front of best in the World? 

Sajan’s seems to be peaking nicely as Rio approaches but where does he stack up against the best in the world. There are 22 swimmers who have comfortably surpassed the A qualification standard of 1:56:97.

This is the race where Micheal Phelps, Lazlo Cseh, Chad le Clos and a host of other quality swimmers ply their trade. Almost all the A qualifiers swim 1:55/56 and below on most occasions irrespective of what stage of their training cycle they are in.

The odds will be stacked against this young Indian swimmer who would do well to imbibe the good training habits from the best in the business.

Expecting a medal is out of bounds but a semi-final finish (which would mean further dropping off his own national record by nearly 2 seconds) would do wonders to his confidence and to a host of upcoming young Indian swimmers who are looking at Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

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