The Indian contingent at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 will feature a couple of swimmers who have achieved the 'A' qualification criteria. This is a historic event given that no Indian swimmer has ever breached the Olympic qualifying time in the past. The two swimmers who achieved this historical feat are Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj.
Indian swimming has never been a force to be reckoned with at the continental level. The lack of infrastructure and facilities deprived Indian swimmers to reach the levels required to compete internationally.
As we roll down the years, we find the names of some talented Indian swimmers like Khajan Singh and Virdhawal Khade. Indian swimmers in the past never got their due recognition for their efforts. Many believed that if the likes of Virdhawal Khade had been born in a country like the US or Australia, they would have won multiple Olympic medals.
There is no doubt that the achievements of Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 are absolutely humongous. However, one should never forget the contributions of Indian swimmers of the past who gave their best to make the sport of swimming popular in India despite modest facilities.
The road to Tokyo for Sajan and Srihari
26th of June, 2021 will be marked as one of the most significant dates in Indian swimming. On that particular day at the Settecolli Swimming Meet in Rome, a certain 27-year-old Sajan Prakash etched his name in the history of Indian sports. He became the first Indian swimmer to breach the Olympic qualifying time of 1:56.48 minutes in 200m butterfly event for men.
Sajan clocked a national record time of 1:56.38 minutes to book his ticket for the Tokyo Olympics 2020. A day later, inspired by his performance, Srihari Natraj obliterated both his own national record of 53.90 seconds and the FINA 'A' qualifying mark of 53.85 seconds to confirm his berth for the Tokyo Olympics in the 100m backstroke event for men.
Srihari clocked a magnificent time of 53.77 seconds in an individual time trial at the Settecolli Swimming Meet in Rome to meet the Tokyo Olympics 2020 qualification criteria.
Struggles to qualify for Tokyo Olympics 2020
The achievements of Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj may sound straightforward on paper, but both of them had their own share of ups and downs.
Sajan Prakash was in very good form in 2018. He made it to the finals of his pet event, 200m Butterfly, at the 2018 Asian Games, finishing 5th in the finals. Sajan clocked an impressive 1:57.75 minutes in the finals.
When the qualifications for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 started on 1st March 2019, many believed that Sajan would qualify for the quadrennial event without much difficulty. However, due to a neck injury, he struggled to find any form in 2019. His Tokyo Olympics 2020 dream received another blow when the use of swimming pools got prohibited last year due to COVID.
When the restrictions were relaxed in 2020, Sajan jumped into the pool determined to qualify for Tokyo. His dedication and hard work paid him huge dividends as he returned to his best form.
Sajan Prakash began his season with a sub-2-minute timing at the Latvia Open. He continued to improve on his performances as the season progressed and as fate would have it, he would qualify for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 on the penultimate day of the qualification timeline.
Srihari's road to qualification for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 was just as interesting. 20-year-old Srihari has already been touted as one of the greatest swimmers that India has ever produced. The backstroke specialist from Bengaluru was on a national record-breaking spree in all his events for the whole of 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic struck.
Despite a lack of training in 2020, Srihari started his 2021 season with great intent. However, in spite of all his efforts, he kept missing the qualification mark by a whisker in various meets. He eventually breached the Olympic qualification mark in the 100m backstroke event on the last day of the qualification timeline.
How Sajan's Tokyo Olympics 2020 qualification helped Srihari
Although both Srihari and Sajan had secured the Tokyo Olympics 2020 'B' qualifying mark in their respective events, as per the rules of FINA, only one athlete per country is allowed to participate at the Olympics in such a situation. That universality quota would have gone to Srihari had Sajan not secured the 'A' qualification time.
With Sajan achieving the 'A' mark, it was imperative for Srihari to push his limits and achieve the 'A' qualification mark to make a cut for the Tokyo Olympics 2020. However, Srihari's event had already taken place at the Settecolli Swimming Meet a day earlier, where he fell just shy of the 'A' mark by 0.05 seconds.
The only way he could have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 was by requesting the organizers of the meet to arrange a separate time trial for him. It took a lot of effort from the Indian coaches and officials to arrange the same for Srihari and he didn't let them down.
The road ahead for Indian swimmers
The monumental efforts put in by Sajan and Srihari to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 should be set as a benchmark in Indian swimming. Both of them have done their bit to inspire a generation of swimmers. They will surely inspire many more Indians when they represent the country at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
It is now up to every state association to provide budding Indian swimmers with the best of coaches and facilities. The Swimming Federation of India needs to prepare the swimmers for a podium finish at the Asian and Commonwealth Games.
The sports ministry also needs to cash in on this watershed moment in Indian swimming to make the sport a powerhouse in the coming years.