After a dry run, the big splash

Swimmers Sajan Prakash and Srihari Nataraj set a marker for India by making the A cut for the Tokyo Olympic Games
Sajan Prakash had not swum since December 2019 when the beginning of the pandemic last year left him without access to a pool or a physio to continue his rehab. (AP) PREMIUM
Sajan Prakash had not swum since December 2019 when the beginning of the pandemic last year left him without access to a pool or a physio to continue his rehab. (AP)
Updated on Jul 02, 2021 02:49 PM IST
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ByAvishek Roy, New Delhi

There was a time last year when swimmers Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash felt utterly helpless. Forget making the ‘A’ cut—notching a timing good enough to directly qualify for the Tokyo Olympics—they did not even have access to a pool.

Nataraj was in Bengaluru, restricted to “dry” training for five whole months, starting March 2020, when the first complete lockdown was enforced in India. All he could do was work out to stay in shape, visualize his strokes, and do swimming-specific mobility work on dry land.

Prakash, who had shifted to Thailand for his training, had not swum since December 2019, when he injured his neck. He had been working hard on making a comeback to the pool, with March as his target month, when Thailand also went into lockdown. Not only did he not have a pool, Prakash also had no access to his physio to continue his rehab.

“Without recovery, you can’t even sleep properly, so it was a very difficult time,” said Prakash.

“For anybody on land, it is easier to resume their workout. But as a swimmer, we are one of the most affected sports because in terms of technique you will lose the water feel or the techniques change because you also put on weight.” But even stuck in a house in Phuket, Prakash kept going.

“We have to just keep the movement going with our strokes. You do core control and you do the stroke continuously. So you don’t get injured inside the water,” said Prakash.

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By June, Nataraj could dream again—over in Phuket, Thailand, pools had opened and Prakash had hit the water. In India too, lockdown restrictions were easing and most of India’s top athletes had restarted their training regimes. But no luck for Nataraj. Pools were still shut in India.

Srihari Nataraj was in Bengaluru, restricted to “dry” training for five whole months, starting March 2020. (AFP)
Srihari Nataraj was in Bengaluru, restricted to “dry” training for five whole months, starting March 2020. (AFP)

Another of India’s top swimmers, Virdhawal Khade, made a desperate plea with sports authorities and the sports ministry to open the pools, at least for elite swimmers. Khade was among six, including Srihari and Prakash, to have achieved the ‘B’ qualification timing (which only puts a swimmer in a standby position, giving them a chance to go to the Olympics in case someone with an ‘A’ time has to pull out). Now their dreams of elevating that B to an A was fast disintegrating. Khade, the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist in 50m fly, was so fed up after repeated requests to the government that he said he was contemplating retiring.

Elite swimmers in India were reduced to desperate measures: 21-year-old SP Likith, the national 100m breaststroke champion, trained in an irrigation pond in a 100-acre farm in a forested area on the Karnataka-Kerala border. Nataraj started making calls to his friends in Australia and other places around the world where pools had reopened, looking for a place to train.

“I would have gone to any part of the globe to get some pool time. It was frustrating,” Nataraj said.

That was the fear of coaches too. Swimmers losing conditioning and their feel for water would mean months working just to get back in shape.

By August, pools were still closed in India and time was running away from Nataraj. Coach Nihar Ameen, who guides Nataraj, could not understand what the fuss was about with pools. “Worldwide it has been proved that pools are safe if chlorine level is maintained and hygiene norms are followed,” said Ameen.

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Finally, a lifeline came when Sports Authority of India picked three swimmers--Nataraj, Khade and Kushagra Rawat--to send to Dubai in late August to train. Khade dropped out, saying it was already too late for him. Prakash joined the team from Thailand instead.

“In May I got chikungunya which made my joints pain, which continued for more than 3-4 months; I had some of the pains till September-October. So, it became very difficult for me and I came to Dubai for some physio support too,” said Prakash.

Training in Dubai

It was only in August that Nataraj and Prakash could start training in earnest in Dubai under Prakash’s coach S Pradeep Kumar, who is also head coach at the Aqua Nation Sports Academy in Dubai where the swimmers were based.

“From August onwards I was slowly building up. My main stroke, butterfly, I could start swimming only in October,” said Prakash.

“I felt weird when I first touched water after so many months,” Nataraj said. “The feeling was gone, I lost a lot of muscles. We had lost the tempo with five months being out of the pool.”

When pools finally opened in India in October, Nataraj returned to train in Bengaluru while Prakash stayed back in Dubai at his coach’s home.

Also read | 15 athletes in individual events, two relay teams qualify for Olympics

“I never gave up in my head. I always believed I could come back,” Prakash said.

Then came their first big test—the first qualifying event in the Uzbekistan Open in April this year. Prakash had started the season in late February and clocked 1:59.31 seconds in the Latvia Open, a good three seconds off the Olympic A standard of 1:56:48 for 200m Butterfly.

“I was not fully prepared when I raced in Feb but I had a pretty good timing with whatever little training I had put in. So, I had the confidence to go to the next level. When I went to Uzbekistan in April, I clocked decent time (1:57.84), I was in fact very close, and that made me even more confident,” said Prakash.

Srihari was on a rampage. He twice broke his own national record in 100m backstroke but he was still off the A mark by 0.22 seconds.

The second wave of the pandemic in India almost derailed the two swimmers again in May as lockdowns were reimposed and pools shuttered.

The two swimmers scrambled to enter the last couple of European meets that remained before the Tokyo cycle ended on June 27. First, at the Belgrade Trophy in Serbia, they inched closer. Then, at the Setti Colli tournament in Rome, on the final day before qualifications closed, both hit the long-dream-of ‘A’ mark.

“I saw the result from at the finish, on the lane ropes,” Prakash said. “It felt I did something good after a long time.”

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Monday, January 24, 2022