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Friday, August 06, 2021

Sajan Prakash becomes first Indian to earn ‘A’ standard Olympic quota

Sajan Prakash became the first Indian ever to clear the 'A' standard of international swimming, clocking 1:56.38 minutes in the 200m butterfly.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: June 27, 2021 8:19:25 am
Sajan Prakash first ever Indian swimmer to make 'A' cut for OlympicsIndia's Sajan Prakash created a new national record in the 200m butterfly event. (File Photo/AP)

Olympic swim teams from top nations tend to have an alpha male leader – the swimmer with the satiated, striking swag. Sajan Prakash earned the bragging rights on Saturday, becoming the first Indian ever to clear the ‘A’ standard of international swimming, clocking 1:56.38 minutes in the 200m butterfly. While he heads to the Tokyo Olympics as the first Indian to make it to successive Games, the immensely humble and staggeringly hard working Sajan is not likely to brag about the giant splash he’s made on what is easily India’s biggest day in swimming.

Swimming in Lane 3 at the Settecolli in Rome, Italy, the 27-year-old from Kerala breached the elusive ‘A’ Cut that stands formidably at 1:56.48 min. He picked gold – his second in two weeks after coming agonisingly close to slashing ‘A’ at Belgrade, Serbia, last week.

It wasn’t the fastest of races, which meant Sajan had to push himself to set the pace, with Israeli Marc Hinawi as a marker. The Indian was right behind Czech swimmer Lunak Sebastien in Lane 4 at the first turn, which he completed in 25.99s. Sajan would take the lead at 100m, clocking 29.57s on the return, and finish with identical, consistent splits of 30.41s in the second half.

Between Belgrade and Rome, coach Pradeep Kumar would work on slashing micro-seconds and going faster over centimetres.

“We worked on gaining a centimetre of speed over each of his 79 strokes,” the coach explains.

“He was spending 19 seconds and 52 metres under-water over four laps, and we focussed on speeding his pace and gaining 80 centimetres in all to breach the ‘A’ Cut.”

Born in Idukki in the shadow of the tallest peak in the Western Ghats – the Anamudi mountains – Sajan swam under coach Saju Sebastien at Neyveli (Tamil Nadu) before heading off to his friend Pradeep Kumar. He would also work in a training stint in Thailand on a FINA scholarship, and was seen as the most consistent performer since his Rio Games outing. The pandemic saw him head to Dubai where he worked in an indoor pool, silently chipping away the seconds.

Rome, though, was an outdoor setting, albeit in beautiful weather.

Sajan came into the Indian team on the back of some big names in the ‘fly – Rehan Poncha and Aaron D’Souza. Not the biggest bloke at under 6 feet, he would move to distance swimming early on.

“Initially he was timid so we moved him from 50m sprint to 200m,” Pradeep says.

“He’s quiet now, but used to be naughty earlier. Still, he was easy to coach, and never carried airs. It’s a great achievement for him and India. He gives others hope and confidence that they too can do this. It needed one guy to breach the mark, and I’m happy it’s this very nice guy.”

Butterfly is considered the hardest strokes. Former Asiad medallist Virdhawal Khade who swam in the event briefly says the feat is commendable because of the pioneering swimmer’s personality.

“He’s such a down to earth, lovable guy. He’s just the right person to be in the limelight for making the ‘A’ Cut. I’m experiencing serious fear of missing out, and wish I was around to watch Sajan do this. He took Indian Swimming forward right after me and Sandeep (Sejwal) stopped. These are exciting times and I’m happy for him,” Khade says.

Sajan’s is the biggest splash in the evolving story of Indian swimming.

“In the 90s, Indians always went on Universality quotas – one boy, one girl. In the 2000s, came the ‘B’ cuts. But Sajan’s A cut is a great first step towards climbing the ladder to the elusive swimming medal,” Khade explains.

Sajan, despite not being the tallest, has great timing on his stroke, which he has polished with his hard work. “He has a tremendous work ethic and everyone knows it. He is modestly built, but is fantastic under pressure and showed it again today,” Khade adds.

While the Butterfly relies on strong shoulders, it is all in the kick that Sajan scores, Khade reckons.

“Even now, he’s not the most dominant guys. But he works hardest and helps young swimmers and is generous with his help. It’s his time now to become the alpha of Indian swimming and lead the others. If youngsters ever needed someone to look up to, there’s none better than this nice guy. Sajan’s put a smile on everyone’s face in Indian swimming,” he concludes.

Sajan’s the nice guy who came first.

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