Sajan Prakash recently created by becoming the first-ever Indian swimmer to directly qualify for the Olympics, while Srihari Nataraj also repeated a similar feat soon. Maana Patel has also made the cut by virtue of university rankings to form the three-member contingent for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Swimming has never been India’s forte at the Olympics, with them not only failing to bag a medal so far but also unable to make a serious claim for a podium finish. Even at the 2016 Rio Olympics, only two swimmers qualified for the mega event - Sajan Prakash (Men’s 200m Butterfly) and Shivani Kataria (Women’s 200m Freestyle), as they finished at the 28th and 41st spot respectively in the heats.
However, there has been a significant improvement this time around. Three swimmers have qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics - Sajan Prakash (Men’s 200m Butterfly), Srihari Nataraj (Men’s 100m Backstroke), and Maana Patel (Women’s 100m Backstroke). Significantly, two of them have directly qualified for the Olympics, by virtue of breaching the A-qualification time. In all the previous editions, Indian swimmers have only earned qualifications through university quotas.
Sajan and Srihari breached the A-mark in the recently concluded 2021 Sette Colli Trophy in Rome. On the other hand, Maana gained entry via the university quota, having breached the B-qualification time to support her cause. Even though we are not expecting a medal from India’s swimming contingent, a better show is certainly on the cards.
Let us have a closer look at the Indian swimming contingent -
Sajan Prakash (Men’s 200m Butterfly)
Sajan Prakash’s first dive inside a pool was when he was just five years old. Massively backed up by her mother – V Shantymol, who herself was a track-and-field athlete, Prakash soon made up his mind to push his level further. Initially, he was enrolled at the Neyveli City Swimming Club, Tamil Nadu, but moved to Bengaluru to train under famed coach Pradeep Kumar. Even though he started off with short-distance events, Prakash shifted to the longer ones like 200m butterfly and the medley on Pradeep’s recommendation.
Sajan’s first major achievement was competing at the 2014 Asian Games, but he would only gain prominence, a year later, at the 2015 National Games, where he claimed a record-breaking eight medals, which included six golds and two silvers.
It was in the same year that he earned a FINA scholarship from the official governing body to train in Thailand, Bangkok. The following year, at the South Asian Games, in Guwahati, he claimed three gold medals – in the men’s 200m butterfly, 1500m freestyle, and 4x200m relay.
Sajan Prakash made his Olympics debut at the 2016 Rio Games, where he featured in the men's 200m butterfly event, qualifying by virtue of the university quota. He finished 28th overall in the heats, failing to make it to the finals.
The build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was pretty eventful for Prakash, having trained in Thailand initially, and then Dubai during the post-lockdown period. At the 2021 Sette Colli Trophy in Rome, he broke three national records - 100m backstroke, 200m butterfly, and 200m freestyle. More notably, he clocked 1:56:38 in the men’s 200m butterfly event to breach the Olympic qualification time of 1:56:48 to directly qualify for the Games, becoming the first-ever Indian to achieve the feat.
Srihari Nataraj (Men’s 100 Backstroke)
Srihari Nataraj has been India's brightest prospect in swimming in recent years. The stroker, who barely crossed his teens, attributes his recent success to the constant support provided by his family members and coach Nihar Ameen. 2018 has been a landmark year for Srihari Nataraj, having represented India at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. He followed it up with participation at the 2019 World Aquatic Championships and in the same year, still at the age of 18, he broke national records in all the three backstroke events at the 2019 World Junior Championships, in Budapest.
However, Srihari’s records still looked bleak in front of the lofty Olympic standards. Meanwhile, he was inducted into the TOPS Target Olympic Podium Scheme – a flagship programme of the Indian Sports Ministry. The development boosted Srihari’s Olympic quest astronomically. A year or two later, in the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the swimmer from Bengaluru breached the B-Qualification mark. However, that was not enough to earn him a ticket to Tokyo and had to still rely on the university quota for entry.
With the pandemic situation looming over, preparations had taken a huge beating, but a three-member camp including himself, Virdhawal Khade, and Kushagra Rawat in Dubai, UAE, earlier this year, helped him get his footing back. Eventually, at the 2021 Sette Colli Trophy in Rome, barely a day after Sajan created history, Srihari also breached the Olympic A-qualification time in the 100m backstroke category, by clocking 53:77 seconds. Srihari is now gearing up to make his Olympics debut in Tokyo.
Maana Patel (Women’s 100m Backstroke)
When Maana Patel scripted a new national record at the 40th Junior National Aquatics Championship in Hyderabad in the women’s 200m backstroke event, she was 13. She had taken up the sport only six years back, at the age of seven. Following this, the Ahmedabad-born stroker soon transformed into a seasoned campaigner, claiming regular medals at the domestic level, including three top-podium finishes at the 72nd Senior National Aquatic Championships in 2018. At the international level, Maana rose to prominence at the 12th South Asian Games, where she claimed six medals, including two golds, three silvers, and one bronze.
Meanwhile, Maana was also inducted into the Olympic Gold Quest scheme, making her the first swimmer to be included in the programme. However, an injury sustained in 2019 sidelined her for several months and hampered her training in the build-up to the Games. Fortunately for her, the Covid-19 pandemic came as a blessing in disguise, as she managed to recover from the injury and get in shape just in time.
At the Uzbekistan Open, earlier this year, Maana clocked 1:04:47 to bag the gold medal and further her cause for Olympic qualification. She even participated in the recently concluded events in Serbia and Italy and even went on to better her national record in the same. It was by virtue of her Olympic B-qualification time, which she achieved during the qualification cycle, that Maana was awarded an entry to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics through university quota. Even though a medal would be unrealistic, the experience gained at the Games would be invaluable for the 21-year old.