He earned the nickname of ‘Indian Michael Phelps’ for his astonishing performance at the National Games in 2015 when he won 6 gold medals and 3 silver medals, but little did Sajan Prakash know that a year later he would be competing with his sporting idol on the Olympic stage.
The Kerala-born swimmer worked as a train clerk in the Bengaluru Division of the South Western Railway to financially support his passion for swimming. He sandwiched his day job between two hours of swimming in early mornings and late evenings before his performances at railway meets and national games eventually convinced his employers to spare him from his job and allow him to concentrate on swimming. “I used to wake up at 5-30 in the morning and head to the swimming pool for two hours of swimming and two hours of gym work-out before I would go for work at 10-30. After I finished work, I would come back, eat something and head back to training in the evening when I would swim for two more hours. This was my routine for a year”, he said reminiscing about the start of his career.
The 2014 Senior Nationals in Kolkata turned out to be a turning point for Sajan as he broke the national record for the 1500 freestyle and qualified for the World Championships. The governing body for world swimming, FINA, recognised his talent and offered him a full scholarship to train in Thailand for the World Championships. “Thailand was a good experience. Whenever you go to a new club or a new swimming pool, it takes time to adjust. In between, I had to deal with a shoulder injury before the South Asian Games, so I was not swimming at all. I was only doing leg workouts and some kicks in the pool but after that I swam in competitions in Bangkok, Malaysia and Hong Kong. I was improving all the time,” said the swimmer born and brought up in Idukki, Kerala.
Sajan’s rise however exposes a stark reality for aspiring swimmers in the country. “I never got any sponsorship, in fact, I still haven’t got any sponsorship except for the government funding I received for winning at the National Games,” he says lamenting the state of the sport in the country. “I have to mention a man in the Railways, Lakshman Singh, who helped me buy supplements for around 7-8 months”, he said.
Despite the lack of support, Sajan earned a wildcard entry to the 200m butterfly event in the Rio Olympics with a record 01: 59: 27 timing in the Asian Games in Hong Kong,. He is the only Indian to complete the 200m butterfly under two minutes but the swimmer admits he has his work cut out if he has to fulfill his aim of making the semifinals at Rio. He is however undaunted despite having the odds stacked against him and is excited for the chance to compete against the world’s best at the Olympics. “It is a dream come true for me. My inspiration is my mother and my coach without whom I would not be going to Rio”, he added.
Sajan will take the pool alongside Michael Phelps and 23 other swimmers on August 8 in the highly anticipated 200m butterfly event. While all eyes are on Phelps’return from retirement, Indian hopes rest on 22-year old Sajan. He would need to shave off another two seconds in his timing to realistically make the semifinals but for a man who has performed miracle runs to reach the Olympics, maybe he has one last miracle run left in him?