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Olympian Sajan Prakash set a national record in the men’s 200m butterfly at the 70th Senior National Aquatic Championships in Ranchi. Here’s a throwback to our 2015 story on the champion swimmer.  

Graham Hill, a stout man with a sunburnt bald spot on his head, stood by the swimming pool in Glasgow, during the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Right under Hill’s nose, Sajan Prakash thrust his chin through the bow wave on the water’s surface, as he perfected the butterfly stroke. “Him,” Hill said, gesturing at Prakash.

Hill is an expensive coach, more so since he coached Chad le Clos, adjudged the best swimmer in the world last year by FINA. He is available to Prakash at Rs 2 lakh a month. “I am overwhelmed that Hill is keen on coaching me. I have plans to take a year off and train under him in South Africa,” says Prakash, who pays for his swimming-related fees through a sports quota job in which he earns Rs 15,000 a month.

Most Indian Olympic swimmers are trained in international waters. While Shikha Tandon was trained in the USA, Rehan Poncha was trained in Australia. Before the recent 35th National Games, in Thiruvananthapuram, getting the funds to pay Hill was unimaginable to Prakash. But, after winning a historic nine medals (six gold, three silver) and breaking national records in five events, including the 400-metre, 800-metre and 1500-metre freestyle and the 100-metre and 200-metre butterfly events, he now has hope of finding a sponsor. There is little to expect from the government, which promised to help but hasn’t been forthcoming since.

The system has never been kind to swimmers, and Prakash is no exception. In his open letter to PM Narendra Modi, Arjuna Award-winning Poncha had written, “Show us that someone actually cares for us, for the swimmer who is buying trunks off the road before his race, or the athlete who can’t afford to buy his food supplement and is up against athletes from the rest of the world, twice his size to begin with, and with ten times the support from his country, too.”

Prakash is accustomed to trying times. Abandoned by his father at the age of two, he was gradually persuaded by his mother Shantymol (a former athlete herself) to take up sports. She began by enrolling him for tennis and football lessons, bribing him with chocolate, but as soon they neared the sports field, Prakash would slither out of her hands, whining. At the age of six, he began taking swimming lessons in the wee hours of the morning, while his mother sat for hours on low wooden benches, suppressing yawns, ready to chase her son into the pool the moment he tried to escape. These tantrums slowly waned after he won his first silver medal, at the age of ten, in a swimming competition.

Soothed by the balmy Bengaluru air, Prakash floats on the water, recalling the torturous heat of his hometown, Neyveli, in Tamil Nadi. “I got a job with the railways, which is why we shifted here, and also because I wanted to train under Pradeep Kumar,” he says. With its cool weather, Bengaluru is India’s swimming capital. Add to that the number of pools, club houses and expert coaches such as Pradeep Kumar, Nihar Ameen, Nisha Millet and Poncha, and the city is geared up to train an army of swimmers in the coming years. Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre alone caters to 400 swimmers at any given time, and it is here that Prakash spends most of his time.

For Prakash, a typical routine before a major tournament is a day of rest, not much conversation, warming up, wolfing down peanut butter chocolate and hours of listening to Eminem. “I wake up at 4am. Practice begins at 5am and goes on till 8am, and then I hit the gym for two hours, after which it’s a rush to reach the office. In the evening, after office, I practise again for two hours,” he says. Free time is a luxury, and when that happens, Prakash is often simply lying on his bed, exhausted. He flits between the pool, his office and his hostel, so there is no time to hang out in pubs, watch movies or meet girls.

“A couple of years ago, a month before the senior nationals, I decided to take a break and watch the final Harry Potter movie at a cinema. I was caught and not allowed to practise for the next three days. Ever since I have tried to stick to the rulebook,” he says, proud of his disciplined, if lonely, life.

The lifespan of a swimmer seems to reach a screeching halt by the time they turn 30. Even a legend such as Michael Phelps retired when he was 28. While most national players transit to coaching, some, such as Poncha try an alternate career, such as golf. When asked of his plans, Prakash fumbles to remember the name of the American swimmer, in her forties, who won three silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Dara Torres. In her book Age Is Just A Number, she writes, “The water doesn’t know how old you are. I’d proven to the world that maturity, experience, dedication and ingenuity can make up for a little senescence. Muscle tightening is not the only thing that happens to our bodies over time. We gain knowledge, focus, and understanding, and those things can help us win.”

Prakash wants to adhere to this insight. “But, if it comes to a point when I have to stop, then I might want to explore rowing as a second career,” he says. For now, he is preparing for the FINA championship, to be held in August, in Russia. This will determine his entry into the 2016 Olympics.

Like Prakash, MS Dhoni, too, dealt with a poorly paying railways job, but today he owns a private jet and is among the richest sportspersons on the planet. Indian cricketers are among the highest paid athletes in the world. But, for Indian swimmers, an Olympic event is their only chance of making it big. Failing that, the path seems to lead to coaching the next generation, to represent a country where swimming is an unappreciated sport.

Losing is something that Prakash does not want to even risk thinking about, but when it happens, he tries to get back in the pool and think of Phelps, his hero, and the words, “So many people along the way, whatever it is you aspire to do, will tell you it can’t be done. But, all it takes is imagination. You dream. You plan. You reach. There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But, with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you, there are no limits.”

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