It’s the first day of the competitions at the 2018 Asian Games, and India is in the mix for a medal in aquatics. It’s the final of the 200m butterfly and one of India’s top swimmers, Sajan Prakash, has made it to the medal round.
Qualifying as the third-fastest swimmer in the heats, the expectation from the Indian squad is palpable. It’s around this time a journalist inquires about his family. The questions seem a bit odd, so Prakash asks for a bit more detail.
It’s then that he realises that his family is stuck in a flood back home.
Engrossed in the competition in Jakarta, barely anyone at the GBK Aquatic Stadium realised what the people in Kerala, where Prakash hails from, were enduring. The southern Indian state encountered one of the worst floods in recent times in 2018.
With close to 500 people dead and another 100-odd missing, the toll on human life was enormous.
Prakash hails from Idukki, a district that was one of the epicentres of this disaster.
Hearing it from the journalist, the swimmer was quick to dig out his phone and call his mother, VJ Shantymol. “She was in Neyveli (a small town in Tamil Nadu), but she told me that she couldn’t get in touch with my cousins in Idukki since the communication was disconnected because of the situation,” said Prakash in a recent chat with the Olympic Channel.
Though he doesn’t blame the situation for his show in the final - Prakash finished fifth, clocking 1:57.75, a good 1.99 seconds behind bronze medallist Li Zhuhao of China - he admits that he was very nervous. “I was shivering, standing on the blocks. And then my start was slow. That’s where I lost,” he recalls staring at the video recording that he still carries on his phone.
It’s a reminder of what happened and where he needs to improve if he has to make it big.
Born in a small village of Thodupuzha in Idukki, Prakash was very young when he had to move to Neyveli. His mother, a national-level track and field athlete had secured a job with Neyveli Lignite Corporation.
While his mother continued to compete and work in Neyveli, a young Prakash was soon drawn into a number of various sports available around the staff quarters.
Be it badminton, running or swimming, the youngster never shied away from trying new things. And with a few former and current players training at these facilities, Prakash was in good hands.
But it was just before his teenage years that Prakash had to make a choice. “I think I was around 11-12 when I had to choose a sport. Primarily because the body type required in aquatics is very different from the one required in track and field. And since I had a flat foot, I chose swimming,” he says.
That decision, however, turned out to be the right one as Prakash grew as a swimmer under the watchful eyes of Joy Joseph and Saji Sebastian.
But the journey soon came to an unexpected halt. With the authorities in Neyveli barely showing any interest in promoting swimming, Prakash would find it difficult to train. It was then that his coaches recommended him to one of the best swimming centres in the country - Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre (BAC).
Many call it the cradle of Indian swimming, and for good reason too. Over the past years, the BCA has not only produced quality swimmers but has also given India a number of Olympians. Be it Hakimuddin Habibulla (2000), Nisha Millet (2000), Shikha Tandon (2004), Rehan Poncha (2008) or Gagan AP (2012), every Games since the turn of the century has seen a BAC swimmer take to the pool.
And it was into this system that Prakash walked into in 2012. The initial few days were unbearable for the young lad. While he was a short distance swimmer, the training routines at the BAC were more attuned to long-distance swimming. It was some time before he could get a grip of things there.
“I remember, in one session, the coaches asked me to swim 18 or 20 200m sets. And guess what I did? I sprinted the first one, and then I was out of gas. Just couldn’t move around,” he recalls.
However, with the help of swimmers like Rehan, Gagan and others, Prakash would soon come to terms with the training and develop into a quality swimmer. Success too followed the youngster as he made a name for himself at the Senior National Championships and the few international meets that he was selected for. But it wasn’t until the 2015 National Games that Prakash would truly establish himself as one of the best in the country.
Turning out for Kerala, the hosts, Sajan won six gold and three silver medals at the National Games - the best medal haul by a swimmer in its history.
“It was my second National Games. But back then I didn’t know that the states would give cash awards to the winners. It was only in 2015 that I got to know this. We were struggling financially. I wanted to ensure that some things would be taken care of if I won a few medals,” he says, recalling the National Games and what pushed him towards such unprecedented success.
“But then, it was not just about money. In the few years before the National Games, I was doing well at the Senior National meets. Not just winning medals, but was also setting records. That too motivated me to do well.”
The performance not only brought him into the limelight but also presented him with an opportunity to better his skills at a state-of-the-art facility in a foreign land.
It was around 2015 that the world aquatics body, FINA entered into a partnership with a swimming training centre in Phuket, Thailand with an aim to train 21 aspiring Olympians ahead of the 2016 Rio Games.
And when FINA reached out to the Swimming Federation of India, they couldn’t think of anyone better than Prakash for the programme. After some deliberation, the youngster was on his way to Phuket. That stint proved beneficial for Prakash as he improved by leaps and bounds and made it to the Rio Olympics the following year under the Universality quota.
Though winning a medal at the Olympics still remains a distant dream for Indian swimming, Prakash’s time at the Games village and at the Games made him realise where India was lacking.
“One thing I learnt there was if we are to be on a par with the world standards, we need things that make them that good,” he says.
“Swimming alone isn’t enough. Be it your masseuse, your trainers, the analysts and so on. Everyone plays a huge role in making a great swimmer. For me, I have had my coaches who have guided me and corrected me. But if Indian swimming has to develop, it needs to go beyond just the coaches.”
Back as an Olympian in the country, Prakash is trying his bit to change the swimming scenario in India. While he still continues to be the one to beat and is aiming to be in Tokyo when the Olympic Games comes around in 2020, Prakash is also helping the youngsters to dream big.
“The idea is to educate people that reaching the Olympics is not a big deal. Winning a medal is what matters and is what should matter,” he says.
“And this comes from the sporting culture we have in our country. All through our lives, we are taught to ‘work hard’, but never are we told to ‘work smart’. That’s something that needs to change.”
Though this might take a while, the seeds are definitely being sown now.