One of India's top swimmers, Sajan Prakash says shutting down all the "nonsense" around him and self belief and having a great support system were key to his dream comeback and he is aiming to compete in the finals of the upcoming Tokyo Games. (More Sports News)
The Keralaite was laid low by a career-threatening neck injury in 2019 and the COVID-19 induced lockdown only made it more challenging for him to qualify for the Olympics as the pools remained close for long.
However, the 27-year-old clocked 1:56:38 seconds in the men's 200m butterfly event in Rome to become the first ever Indian swimmer to earn a direct Olympic qualification.
"There were many comments, even before the lockdown that I was old and am not getting any improvements," Sajan said in a virtual interaction organised by SAI.
"Keeping all that aside, I think the important thing was the support system believed in me. My friends backed me and I didn't lose hope in myself. I'm 27-year-old and a swimming event like this needs a lot of confidence in you."
"It's all the work we did and we tried to stay focussed on our goal and sticking towards our business and not letting any nonsense come inside. With that we could achieve it," he said.
Asked about a realistic target at the Games, he said, "I would say cut down another 0.5 seconds and it's possible in this case and that will take me 1:55:8, something that will surely get me into the semi-finals, and maybe towards the final as well."
Sajan said he's working on the turns and trying to cover more distance in one-stroke so as to cut down the timing.
"Exactly we have 20 days for the meet. We have done all the work before the qualifications, it's about working on small things. I'm working on the turns, increasing more distance on that one stroke so that I reach the wall quicker and turn.
"I'm increasing on some speed because I lack the front hand speed. I'm confident to cut down some more time so that will give me a chance to be in the semi-finals and maybe in the final as well," he said.
Sajan first had signs of the neck injury during the sidelines of the World Championships in Gwangju in July 2019 but it was only at the Nepal South Asian Games in December, scans revealed a slip disc on his neck's C4, C5 and C6 bones.
Rehab followed and his recovery was hit hard by the lockdown as he could not get into the pool after shifting to Thailand.
Forget breaching the Olympic A qualification mark of 1:56:48 seconds, it was tough to manage even a stroke in the trickiest butterfly that requires immense muscle power and skill, but he kept at it without paying heed to the criticism around him.
"I had to basically start everything from scratch. I had to work on basics so looking to qualify for another Olympics with an A cut, that wasn't the right thing to do and we had to run very short of time," he recalled.
"We worked on small small things going step by step, and with my own dedication, and of my coach, today I've made it."
After Sajan, Srihari Nataraj also achieved a direct qualification, when the 20-year-old clocked 53.77 seconds in the men’s 100m backstroke in Rome to make the cut.
India will also have a third swimmer, Maana Patel who has made the cut through the ‘Universality quota’ as for the first time India will send three members to take part in the Summer Games.
Sajan says lack of opportunity is the biggest hurdle for Indians' progress.
"As for as the Indian swimmers are concerned, they don't lack in talent but they don't have the opportunity to be consistent. We just have two competitions in our senior swimmers and that's not enough to go and test yourself all the time."
"You need to have more competitions inside India. At least that's one basic thing we need to have. I think if that comes in and the government supports more towards that and more sports science and biomechanics coming towards one goal. I think there will be changes in the future.
"In my opinion, it's not just willpower only, it's a package. The sportsperson should have all the qualities to put together to achieve at that point. It's a combined effort. For me, it's the support system that brought me to this level," he concluded.