When swimmer Sajan Prakash touched the pads in 200m butterfly at his last attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in Sette Colli, Rome, he noticed one minute 58 seconds flash on the timer. “I saw the board and thought, NO! Don’t tell me I missed the bus again,” Sajan recalled the feeling of despair. But when he removed his goggles and took a second glance at the timer, he realised he was reading Israel’s Marc Hinawai’s time who had finished behind him. “When I saw the timer properly, I read 1:56.38 against my name.”
“I instantly felt relieved. I felt lighter on my shoulders. I had come a long way, braved many struggles to achieve this mark,” Sajan told The Quint in an exclusive conversation from Rome.
In his journey to become India’s first-ever swimmer to clock the Olympic ‘A’ standard time, Sajan indeed faced several hardships. Financial struggles apart, he faced a career-threatening shoulder injury in 2019 that put a big question mark on his Olympic hopes.
“He had gone to the SAF Games in Kathmandu (in December 2019) and returned without swimming a single event because his shoulder ached,” recalled Pradeep S Kumar, Dronacharya awardee and Sajan’s coach. “Had I been at that event, I would have told him – even if you are dying, you have to swim the races. You can’t give up,” Pradeep, known to be a task master, said in hindsight.
It is this relentless attitude of coach Pradeep and the blind belief he had in Sajan’s potential that eventually led the 27-year-old to Dubai’s Aqua Nation Sports Academy (ANSA) where Pradeep is in-charge – a decision Sajan insists changed the course of his fate.
“I arrived in Dubai on 25 August 2020 at 1 am.”
“It had been nearly a year since I had stopped swimming due to my injury. I had gone to many doctors and got MRIs done and each one had their own opinion. I was engulfed with negative thoughts, and I really wanted to move away from people who told me I may not be able to do it,” recalled Sajan about his agonising battle with the persisting shoulder pain since 2019.
“No doubt he was in physical pain,” exclaimed Pradeep. “But I think it was his mind that troubled him the most. This boy who never liked to lose had started wondering if his swimming career was over,” Pradeep vividly recollected the mental state Sajan battled in 2020.
‘Gowri Aunty and Swim Buddies at ANSA Made Me Forget the Pain’
Sajan’s struggle with injury was real but arriving in Dubai for a two-month camp organised by Swimming Federation of India in August 2020 not just set him on the right path, but also set him up with his swim buddies who stoked his confidence.
He decided to stay on after the camp ended in October, but was plagued by financial challenges. With his FINA Scholarship up for renewal, Sajan had no funds to meet the expenses in Dubai.
This was when Pradeep offered to help Sajan by allowing him to stay in his house free of cost while they chased his Olympic dream.
Here, Sajan developed a great ‘mother-and-son-like’ bond with Pradeep’s wife Gowri who had recently moved to Dubai after retiring from a managerial position at the Karnataka Bank. “Gowri aunty and I share a great bond. Pradeep sir is a very difficult person, always putting you through the grind,” Sajan said candidly.
“But Gowri aunty was very supportive. She did everything a mother would do for her son, and she fed me the best Kerala food. I would go straight to the kitchen after workout and we would have many light moments which made me forget my physical pain,” Sajan spoke fondly about his eight-month stay at Pradeep and Gowri’s home.
For Pradeep, however, it was a conscious decision to remain Sajan’s coach even at home. “I was always the coach to Sajan, even at home. It was a conscious decision to a certain extent because if the equation changed then I wouldn’t be able to kick him out of the pool when he doesn’t do as expected,” affirmed Pradeep.
On weekends, the family along with other swimmers who trained under Pradeep at the Aqua Nation Sports Academy (ANSA) would go out for breakfast. There were times when swimmer Vedanth Madhavan’s actor father R Madhavan and his wife would join the swim team in Dubai, and they used to get together at the famed multi-lingual movie star’s mansion. “Sajan was everyone’s pet. He also played a role of a mentor to some of the younger swimmers like Tanish George, Shoan Ganguly, and Vedanth (Madhavan). They, too, would always cheer him on and tell him, he can do it. I think these factors really helped him gain back that confidence day-by-day,” expressed Pradeep.
‘Turning Point in Latvia’
It had been over a year since Sajan last appeared in a butterfly event at any international meet. So, when the swim team featuring Tanish George, Vedanth Madhavan, and Sajan Prakash arrived in Latvia in March this year, Pradeep sensed something was troubling Sajan.
“We were very well-prepared for the Latvia Open. It so happened that Sajan, and I shared the same room and the night before his 200m butterfly, he didn’t sleep well at all and kept turning in the bed,” recalled 58-year-old seasoned Coach Pradeep.
“The next morning, after warm-up Sajan came up to me and said I can’t turn my neck. I was very upset. I simply walked back to the room which was only a minute away and brought him a painkiller. I asked him to swallow it and go swim,” Pradeep recounted.
“The fact that I hadn’t swum a butterfly event really played on my mind in Latvia,” admitted Sajan. But ahead of his final, a masseuse with the Belarus team agreed to help release the pain Sajan suffered. “That massage worked like magic and though I expected him to go 1:57 there, he clocked 1:59.31. This was the first time he went under 2-minute mark in nearly two years and though it was nearly four seconds behind the A cut, that really was the turning point for him,” Pradeep added.
Sajan improved his time by a big margin at Uzbekistan Open in April where he clocked 1:57.85 to win gold. “For me, it was from this meet onwards that I felt I was getting really close to the A cut,” he added. But the Indian swimmers were posed with a new challenge.
‘Rammy’ to the Rescue in Times of COVID
With Indian passport holders put on travel red lists and subsequently several meets getting cancelled due to the pandemic, SFI and Pradeep had to put their heads together to finalise the events they would enter. With Prague visa out of bounds and Dubai cancelling a qualifying meet, races in Monaco and Nice, too, were off limits due to the second wave in India.
“With so much uncertainty, we were wracking our brains to figure out a way. That’s when I reached out to former India waterpolo player Ram Gopal Narayan aka Rammy, a bronze medalist at 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. He coaches one of the best waterpolo teams in Belgrade,” Pradeep said.
“Rammy offered to let us use his facility to train and even booked us at Hyatt Hotel – all at his own cost. Though eventually our travel sanctions came through from the Indian Government and SFI also managed to get the swim team to train in the same venue as Serbian national team, Ram came to our aid like a god. He ensured our swimmers got the best Indian food, he hosted us every single day at an Indian restaurant, which maintained all safety measures and cooked as per our dietary preference. The team never felt home sick, thanks to Rammy.”
Belgrade to Sette Colli – A Difference of 0.48 Second
Having dealt with all the visa issues, when Sajan arrived from Dubai to Belgrade, Serbia earlier this month, he was in good nick and was well-tapered to make the mark. But he was a mere 0.48 second slower than the ‘A’ cut time of 1:56.48 in Belgrade Trophy.
Only a week between the races in Belgrade and Sette Colli, Pradeep began analysing Sajan’s event to find out a solution to crack the ‘A’ cut.
“I began watching his video over and over, and even consulted with some of my former swimmers like (Olympian) Rehan Poncha. To make the cut, we realised he had to go faster by 1 cm per stroke and we did speed workouts to attain that result,” explained Pradeep.
Having achieved this historic feat, Sajan is now focused on a semi-final finish in Tokyo. “I feel this is a new beginning for Indian swimming. This was the first time six of us were within the ‘B’ cut and two of us have gone under the ‘A’ cut time. There’s a healthy competition amongst us and we want to push each other to bigger results. I will be focused on cutting down another second and will work towards that when we return to Dubai,” signed off Sajan.
(Nandini Kumar is a former national swimmer and has worked with top English dailies in her stint as a journalist. She now works as content lead for WordsWork LLP.)
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