History maker Sajan Prakash: 'I think I'll pass out from the joy'

Sajan Prakash poses with his medals at the Sette Colli Trophy, Rome. SFI

Over the past year and a half, Sajan Prakash has shifted base between countries, missed training for five months, fought a slipped disc in the neck, a shoulder injury, survived with intermittent electricity in peak Dubai summer, and yet found something to top it all -- a historic 'A' cut. On Saturday, the 26-year-old clocked 1:56.38 in the 200m butterfly event at the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome to glide into automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. The qualifying standard for the event was pegged at 1:56.48.

This is the first time an Indian swimmer has managed to make the Games 'A' mark. "It's a solid timing," Sajan told ESPN. "When I saw it flash on the board, I was in tears."

To get here, the swimmer from Kerala has been to hell and back. After the pandemic broke last year, pools were shut and Sajan was confined to his hostel room in Phuket, Thailand. Training at the Thanyapura Aquatic Centre on a FINA scholarship, the only option was to wait it out until things got better. Returning to India, where his physiotherapist was based, was a no-go since pools were not allowed to open up even after the lockdown was lifted.

He then found deliverance in long-time coach Pradeep Kumar, who welcomed him into the Aqua Nation Sports Academy, and his home, in Dubai. "Sajan's coach in Thailand [Miguel Lopez] got in touch with me to say that he wasn't in great mental shape because of the injuries he'd been struggling with," says Pradeep. "There was a batch of elite Indian swimmers who were coming over to our facility in Dubai for training, Sajan too travelled from Thailand. Then, we thought it would be best if he stayed back. When I saw him, I realised that more than his body, his mind needed care and attention. In training, we had to start really slow because there was a chance his injury might worsen. We went back to beginner levels."

After a laboured start, came the "nasty workouts". It's the merciless sessions by coach Pradeep that Sajan believes carried him into history. "He'd make me do short rest sets, he'd tell me not to breathe with every stroke, as soon as I'd touch the wall he'd say 'go', and it was really hard on me. Slowly, I saw myself grow stronger in the races. I would do simulations in my racing suit, without shaving and tapering. I still managed to clock 1:58. That's when I knew I was up to some good."

Pradeep's wife, Gowri, who'd taken voluntary retirement from her job in a Karnataka bank, then flew to Dubai to pitch in with tending to Sajan's nutritional needs. "Dubai is such an expensive city to live in and Pradeep sir was a life-saver, giving me shelter, Gowri aunty took care of my nutrition, and whatever I needed to keep my body going with the injury. I can't imagine a coach and his family doing what they did for me."

In April this year, Sajan, an inspector in Kerala's Special Armed Police, managed to meet his mother, VJ Shantymol, a former track and field athlete, after two years. Following her visit to Dubai, they took up a room on rent, where power was an infrequent visitor during the day, since the person who sub-letted it from the owner hadn't cleared their dues. It meant he could no longer get rest in the mornings post intense pool sessions starting at daybreak.

Tokyo will be Sajan's second Olympic appearance. He is the first Indian swimmer to make two editions of the Games. At Rio 2016, he had finished 28th in the heats. This time, he's hoping to get as far as the finals. "When I stood on the deck in Rio, I realised we are nothing. Everyone else around us is working so much harder. We tend to do little and celebrate early."

Immediately after his race on Saturday, Sajan borrowed a fellow swimmer's phone to call his mother and, over sniffles, shared news of his historic swim.

His own phone had been stashed away by coach Pradeep to block out the trickle of news on nominated spots which could upset his focus before this weekend's final qualification event. The Swimming Federation of India had recently nominated Srihari Nataraj and Maana Patel for Universality places at the Games. Sajan's automatic qualification now cancels Srihari's Universality spot hope, though he could still get an invite since he's met the 'B' standard.

The hardships have been many," says Sajan. "When you're down, you're always looking for words to lift you up. Luckily, I had people who were around to offer me that. The neck injury has been complicated, I can't strain it much and sometimes it's tough to sleep. But tonight, I think I'll pass out from the joy.