Thailand or India? Swimmer Sajan Prakash caught between a rock and a hard place

Sajan Prakash at the 2018 Asian Games. Prakash needs to shave off at least 1.25s off his personal best in the 200m butterfly to make the cutoff for the Tokyo Olympics. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Olympic swimmer Sajan Prakash is the only elite Indian swimmer training in the water at the moment. And that's because he is not in the country, where pools remain closed -- prompting even his high-profile contemporary Virdhawal Khade to contemplate retirement. Prakash is in Thailand, where he has been since February, grateful for the chance to train in a pool.

He is finding the going tough, though. "Going back to the water, I felt as if my body was made out of stone," says the 26-year-old, who had competed in the 200m butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He started training at Phuket's Thanyapura Aquatic Centre in the last week of May, having stayed out of the water since early March, when Thailand entered its own lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.

"Swimming isn't like a land-based sport. When you take an extended break, you lose a lot of your feel for the water. It's almost like learning to walk once again," he says.

Prakash, who has been at the Thanyapura Swimming Centre since 2015 on a FINA scholarship, considers himself lucky right now, but he wasn't so cheerful those few months ago. While the rest of the swimming world was getting into the best possible shape for the Olympics or Olympic qualification, Prakash was still recovering from a serious neck injury.

"Over the course of 2019, I'd suffered a slipped disc in my neck. It got so bad that I wasn't able to move my left arm before the South Asian Games in December. The doctors told me I could either try to recover through physiotherapy and exercise or get surgery. But with the second option, my sports career was as good as over. It wasn't a good way to prepare for the Olympics but you have to push yourself through these things," he says.

Prakash underwent physiotherapy in Bangalore before he moved to Thailand, where he increased his workload while continuing to train through the pain. "You can't just stop swimming. You lose aerobic conditioning really fast. What I would do was slowly increase the time I was spending in the pool in each session. From half an hour to one hour and then two hours," he says.

All that, of course, came to a standstill when Thailand shut down. Prakash was stuck at his boarding house along with the 16 other members of the scholarship programme. "We weren't allowed to go out of our house so we basically did a lot of dry-land exercises," he says.

While the coronavirus pandemic might have upset many athletes' plans for the now postponed Olympics, Prakash thinks he might benefit from the delay. "The big plus is that I don't have to rush my recovery from the injury. Earlier, I didn't have an option. The Olympics were in July and I had to push myself at the risk of aggravating my injury. Now I can pace myself," he says.

Even the social-distancing measures put in place in the swimming pool have worked in Prakash's interest. "Among the rules we have to follow since the opening of swimming pools has been to train in separate lanes. In the past, because we had to share the pool with other members of the centre, we would all have to swim in a single file in the same lane. Very often you'd find someone's hands touching your toes. It's much less distracting to have your own lane," he says.

"Swimming isn't like a land-based sport. When you take an extended break, you lose a lot of your feel for the water. It's almost like learning to walk once again." Sajan Prakash

There is a downside to training in Thailand, though. Considering he's still recovering from his injury, Prakash often feels pain in his neck after workouts. In India, he'd shared a room with physiotherapist Jeet Devaiah, who'd been working with him since last December. "In India, I'd be able to have Jeet help me out whenever I needed it. In Thailand, I only have two sessions a week with the physio and they cost close to Rs 10,000. I have a sponsor, but it's still really expensive," he says.

This leaves Prakash in a bit of a quandary. "I have to balance two different things. I could go home to India, where I'll be in a better position to treat my injury. I'll be able to see a physiotherapist regularly and not just twice a week. But at the same time if I do go to India, I won't be able to use the pool for the near future. In Thailand, I have the use of the pool and if I go to India, I'm not sure if I'll be able to come to Thailand anytime soon," he says.

For the moment, all Prakash can do is hope he stays injury-free. "I always have to hope my injury doesn't get worse in Thailand because that would limit my options. I'm about 70 per cent recovered but there's always a fear that the pain will start once again," he says.

As he increases his workload at the risk of aggravating his injury, Prakash has his eyes set on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. He'll have to shave off a little over a second off his personal best of 1:57.73 to meet the Olympic A standard of 1:56.48. "My endurance is quite good but I need to increase my speed in the opening 100m of the race. My current personal best in the first 100m is 53.46 seconds. I'll have to be able to do that in 52 seconds if I have to have a chance," he says.

It's a tough situation but Prakash says he's up for the challenge. "If I manage to meet my timing target, I'll be the first Indian swimmer to either match the A standard or qualify for two Olympic games. That's a big motivation," he says.