Sajan: 'Goal is Rio semis'

Sajan Prakash was selected ahead of Sandeep Sejwal, Virdhawal Khade, Aaron D'Souza and Saurabh Sangvekar, all of whom had participated in the 2015 World Championships in Kazan.

Sajan clocked 1:59.27 in the 200m butterfly in Hong Kong, becoming the first Indian swimmer ever to dip under the two-minute-mark.   -  K. Bhagya Prakash

Sajan Prakash was waiting to board a flight at Hong Kong International Airport when he first heard he was going to Rio. A friend had texted him from last week's Junior Nationals in Bengaluru, where the SFI announced that Shivani Katariya and he had been chosen to fill India's two Universality places at the Olympics.

For the next four hours, till he landed in Phuket, his training base for the last year, Sajan says he was in a state of shock. “For four hours I couldn't do anything, because I was flying. I didn't know if it was for sure or not till I landed. Then I confirmed it with my coach. During those four hours, I was so confused. I didn't know whether to be happy or not.”

Sajan was selected ahead of Sandeep Sejwal, Virdhawal Khade, Aaron D'Souza and Saurabh Sangvekar, all of whom had participated in the 2015 World Championships in Kazan and were thus eligible for the one Universality place for men. “It's hard luck for the other four swimmers,” he says. “They tried like real champions; they didn't give up till the last moment. Sandeep, Saurabh, Aaron, and Virdhawal: I'll swim for them in Rio.”

There is, however, no denying the 22-year-old's joy at his accomplishment. “It was my childhood dream to go the Olympics,” he says. “For the last year and a half, I'd been trying to qualify. Five of us were competing; we didn't know who would go. It was a tough time. In January, I suffered a shoulder injury and I thought it was over. My goal in Rio is to enter the semifinals, for which I will need to do at least 1:57. No Indian has ever reached the semifinals.”

Earlier this month, at the Age Group Long Course swimming meet – Division 1 (Part 3) in Hong Kong, Sajan clocked 1:59.27 in the 200m butterfly (his event at the Olympics), becoming the first Indian swimmer ever to dip under the two-minute-mark. “It's a major breakthrough for Indian swimming,” he says. “If one person does it, his competitor will think he can do it too.”

In June last year, FINA's Targeting Rio scholarship took Sajan to the Thanyapura Sports Resort in Phuket, where he trained under former Spanish National coach Miguel Lopez Alvarado for just over a year. The Idukki-born swimmer led a monkish lifestyle there, steering clear of Phuket's many distractions. “I didn't go out, didn't eat junk food, didn't eat dessert,” he says. “I was just training and training. My team-mates went out. Phuket is a great destination for holiday-makers. But I knew that if I spent time outside, I might have to wait four more years for the Olympics.”

Sajan fears what would have happened, though, without the scholarship. “In our country, it's tough. When I wanted financial assistance, the NSDF (National Sports Development Fund) cleared Rs. 2.5 lakhs. It was good for the competitions, but what about my training? If I want to buy supplements, I need to buy them on my own. Only because of the scholarship, I could manage everything,” he says.

Sajan's mother, V.J. Shanthymol, who works in Neyveli, was a track and field athlete who represented India at the World University Games of 1987 and once nursed Olympic ambitions of her own. “She tried so much to make it to the Olympics but couldn't,” he says. “Now, I've done it. She's very happy.”