What can India's swimmers hope to win at the 2016 Rio Olympics?

Sajan Prakash stands a chance of entering the semi-finals – what would be a monumental achievement for an Indian

India’s highest honour in Olympic swimming was in 1956 when a now forgotten Shamsher Khan placed fifth in the butterfly event at the Melbourne games.

60 years later, on Monday next week, when Sajan Prakash from Kerala and Shivani Kataria from Haryana will enter Rio’s Olympic Aquatic Stadium, the nation will once again look for Olympic glory in a sport where medals have eluded Indians. Sajan Prakash will compete in the 200 meter butterfly event while Kataria will take part in the 200 meter freestyle. Both swimmers will take Universality Places in the star-studded competitors list of both events, and though the Olympics are time for fervent national pride, the chances of either of them clinching a medal are slim.

For a country crisscrossed by rivers, India has not had much luck in Olympic swimming.

Hakimuddin Habibulla, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics which saw the historic rise of Ian Thorpe, was placed fiftieth in the prelims. The Sydney Olympics also saw India’s Nisha Millet at the 200 M freestyle in the women’s categoty, but even though Millet won her respective heat, she failed to make it to the semi-finals.

In the 2004 Athens Olympics Shikha Tandon became the first woman to qualify for two Olympic swimming events – the 50 meter and the 100 meter freestyles – yet Tandon too remained without a medal.

In the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Maharashtrian Virdhawal Vikram Khade competed in the most number of events by an Indian swimmer – the 50 meter, 100 meter and 400 meter freestyles – but he did not qualify to the semis in any of these. Beijing also saw Ankur Poseria and Rehan Poncha fail to make it to the semis, in spite of giving heroic fights in the heats.

More recently, in 2012, national record holder Sandeep Sejwal got to 36th position in the lead up to the 100 metre breaststroke event and Gagan Ullalmath – the only Indian swimmer in the London Olympics failed to reach the semis of the 1500 meter freestyle.

Can Sajan improve upon the records of India’s swimming greats?

The honour alone is big enough, but for 22-year-old Sajan Prakash, the fact to both look forward to and be aware of remains that he has to compete in the same event as Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and László Cseh. While Phelps is the Olympic record holder for the 200 fly, South African le Clos has beaten Phelps in the same event in the 2012 London Olympics. Hungarian legend Cseh, on the other hand, beat le Clos in the 2015 World Aquatics Championship by 0.2 seconds and has the fastest of the qualifying times in the event.

There are 6.36 seconds and 26 Olympian butterfly swimmers between Prakash and Cseh and for any athlete to reduce a gap as big as this would take years. However, while a medal may be out of the question, Prakash could look forward to a berth in the semi-finals.

With his entry time of 1:59.27, Prakash is well within the B time cut-off of 2:01.06 in the 200 meter fly. Even though he is a Universality category entry, he has faster times than both Israel’s Gal Nevo (1:59.45) and New Zealand’s Bradlee Ashby (2:00.60). While we do not know how he will be placed within the heats, Prakash’s chances of moving to the semis would depend mostly on the combination of swimmers and how they perform in the preliminary levels.

Harder tide to battle for Shivani

Like Prakash, 18-year-old Kataria’s best hopes, as she herself has admitted, are latched to a place in the semi-finals. If Prakash is under pressure to distinguish himself in an event showcasing the best of men’s swimming, Kataria too is going to have no cakewalk. The 200 freestyle has not only seen the very best in women’s swimming, at Rio the event will witness the return of the ‘magical Missy Franklin’ and nine-time world champion Katie Ledecky.

Yet to break the two-minute barrier, Shivani’s time of 2.04.34 puts her ahead of other Universality Place selections, Fiji’s Matelita Buadromo and Ghana’s Kaya Adwoa Forson. However, the gap between Kataria and the current Swedish world record holder in the women’s short course 200 freestyle, Sarah Sjöström, is considerable. With a qualifying time of 1:54.31, Sjöström is ahead of Ledecky and poses a veritable threat to the USA women’s medal dreams in the event.

Kataria’s chances of making it to the semis depend directly on how she completes within the heats. At the very least, what India will look forward to the creation of two Olympians who will break records and bring medals in 2020.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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