Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash’s Olympics qualification: A watershed moment in Indian swimming

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The swimmers’ ‘A’ cut qualification for the Tokyo Games is unprecedented in Indian swimming

A year-and-a-half ago, Sajan Prakash, 27, thought he would not make it to the Tokyo Olympics 2020. The swimmer suffered a slipped disc, which also hurt his neck. As he recovered, the pandemic forced pools to close in Thailand, where he was training at the Thanyapura Aquatic Centre in Phuket on a scholarship. Confined to his hostel, he contemplated returning to India. But the situation here was worse.

Then, last August, a reprieve came in the form of a 50-day camp in Dubai organised for top Indian swimmers with national coach Pradeep Kumar. After the camp, Sajan was in a quandary again. He wanted to stay back in Dubai, but that was going to be expensive. That is when coach Pradeep and his wife, Gowri, came to Sajan’s rescue. The couple invited him to stay with them in Dubai and ensured he got better in the pool.

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On June 26, Sajan clocked 1:56:38 seconds in the men’s 200-metre butterfly event at the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome. In doing so, he became the first Indian swimmer to make the Olympic Qualifying Time (also known as FINA ‘A’ cut), which ensures automatic qualification for the Olympics. Unable to make the ‘A’ cut hitherto, Indian swimmers had to count on the Olympic Selection Time (also known as ‘B’ time) or the universality quota — less certain ways — to get to the Olympics.

Three days later, Sajan’s compatriot Srihari Nataraj, 20, joined him in securing the ‘A’ cut after his time of 53.77s in a 100-metre backstroke time trial in the Rome event was ratified by international swimming’s governing body, FINA.

Srihari, like Sajan, had to overcome obstacles before breaching the qualifying mark. For over six months, he could not swim due to the lockdown. Then, this January, his father passed away. It took about seven months of relentless training to shave half a second off, which determined his entry to the Tokyo Games.

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An Olympic medal still remains a distant dream for Indian swimming. It is unlikely that India’s swimming contingent — comprising Sajan, Srihari and Maana Patel (who qualified for the women’s 100m backstroke event under the universality quota) — will return with one. But Sajan and Srihari’s ‘A’ cuts could be a defining moment.

Long way to go

Ever since the 1951 Asian Games in which India won six swimming medals, including its only gold, there has been very little success. The country has added just three more medals at the Asian Games and one (in para-swimming) at the Commonwealth Games . In bigger meets — the World Aquatics Championships and the Olympics — qualification itself has been a big deal.

Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash’s Olympics qualification: A watershed moment in Indian swimming

Can the medal drought be attributed to genes? Indian swimmers, perhaps, are not powerfully built like their US counterparts, who keep winning medals year after year. Sports science expert Genadijus Sokolovas, who has worked with the world’s top swimmers like Michael Phelps, says, “Genes matter very little. If this is about size, then, the fastest fish is not the biggest.” According to him, a swimmer’s success depends on their training, technique and motivation. The US swimmers, he says, win medals because they have access to good coaches, excellent training facilities and a supportive ecosystem; not because they are superhumans.

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Srihari and Sajan say they are happy with the coaching and training facilities. India’s senior coaches Nihar Ameen and Pradeep are winners of the Dronacharya award (given to honour sports coaches in India) and have decades of experience. The top Indian swimmers had the chance to interact with Sokolovas in February during a six-day workshop organised by the Swimming Federation of India (SFI). They also have access to world-class facilities at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence.

“A lot more professionals are involved now. In our days, we never had dieticians, biomechanics experts and physiotherapists at our disposal,” says former Olympic swimmer Nisha Millet.

Things seem to be improving for Indian swimmers at the elite level. The problem, Nisha points out, is at the grassroots. “Once you reach the top-level, you get support from the Government, federation and private institutions. But when you are lower down the rung, there is no one to guide you properly,” she says.

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As the director of a swim school — the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy in Bengaluru — she observes that many swimmers drop out between the ages of 15 to 22, preferring professional courses over competitive swimming. Parents are unable to meet the increasing expenses of coaching, competition, diet, swim-gear among other things. An elite swimmer like Sajan needs over a lakh every month. The return on investment is low as there isn’t a lot of prize money to be won.

Girls, for instance, have to deal with cultural taboo as some parents, Pradeep says, don’t want them to wear swimsuits after puberty. And, according to Nisha, they get fewer job opportunities through swimming than boys. These reasons probably explain why no Indian female swimmer since 2004 has made even the ‘B’ time; they have only gone to the Olympics via the universality quota.

Maana Patel

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Maana Patel
 
| Photo Credit: PTI

Coach Pradeep says the Government, private institutions and clubs should promote swimming. “Unless we have hundreds of thousands of kids doing competitive swimming, we can’t be strong at the top-level. It’s like a pyramid — our base has to be so huge that you can build on it and find talent that can take us to the Olympics podium.”

The road ahead

Srihari and Sajan’s ‘A’ cut is important because it has lifted a mental block among Indian swimmers. “We used to think ‘A’ cut was impossible. Now, two people have made it at the same event,” says Srihari.

Pradeep believes this will trigger more ‘A’ cuts in the next Olympics. At the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, he says, India should aim for a podium finish. For these long-term goals to materialise, there is a lot to be done, says SFI’s general secretary Monal Chokshi.

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One of the immediate goals is to ensure each State has at least three swimming academies under the Khelo India programme. Indian swimming, he explains, follows a two-tier system. The top-tier swimmers have access to high-performance centres like the one in Bengaluru. The junior swimmers — about 130 (“a very small number” according to Chokshi) — are supposed to make use of the Khelo India academies. These academies, however, are not easily accessible.

The federation is also looking to increase the number of competitions. As a part of this plan, it is planning an All-India ranking tournament for the junior and senior categories. “Racing should be more regular — not for the medals but for the swimmers to get used to the mental process of a competition,” says Chokshi.

Other plans include a tour of South Africa for the junior top-10 in December or January, a standardised coach certification program at the junior level, more opportunities for the top-100 swimmers to train and race abroad, and making sports science experts like Sokolovas more accessible.

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“Srihari’s 53.77 would have won him a medal 15-20 years ago,” says Sokolavas, “There will be a time, 10-20 years from now when Indian swimmers will be swimming faster than current world records. But we can try to do it much before that.”

Srihari is just 20. He believes his performance is yet to peak. Three years ago, his two long-term goals were to qualify for the Olympics in 2020 and win multiple medals in the 2024 edition in Paris. The first one has been accomplished. It will take a monumental effort to realise the second. But he seems prepared.

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