Sajan and Srihari have created history, but the uphill climb for Indian swimming has only just begun
Last month, Indian swimming witnessed history being made when not one, but two swimmers went under the A-mark Olympic Qualification Time to secure berths for Tokyo 2020.
In a span of 24 hours in Rome, first Sajan Prakash in 200m butterfly and then Srihari Nataraj in 100m backstroke came up with record-breaking efforts to become the first two Indian swimmers ever to make the A-cut. That they had to cope with multiple pandemic-triggered lockdowns, injury breaks and personal setbacks made the feat more noteworthy.
But to merely bask in the glory of qualification is to miss the forest for the trees. As the duo already knows, and will experience first-hand in Tokyo, Olympic standards are moving targets. A stellar showing will be required to just get out of the heats and reach the semifinals, something no Indian swimmer has ever done.
Sajan’s 1:56.38s (A-mark: 1:56:48s) would have placed him in the top eight four years ago at Rio 2016, but this time around, all it earned him was the right to be in Tokyo. Similarly, Srihari’s 53.77s (A-mark: 53.85s) would have earned him a semifinal spot in Rio.
A medal is thus a distant dream. In 2016, Tamas Kenderesi’s bronze in 200m butterfly came in 1:53.62s — almost three seconds faster than Sajan’s best — and David Plummer’s bronze in 100m backstroke was earned in 52.40s, more than a second quicker than Srihari’s A-mark.
The aim will thus be to make the semifinals, something 20-year-old Srihari is aiming for on his debut. With his best years ahead of him, the youngster is expected to treat this as part of his preparations to excel at Paris 2024.
But for 27-year-old Sajan, this may be his last Olympic sojourn at his prime, and he will want to significantly improve on his 28th-place finish out of 29 swimmers at Rio, after having entered via the universality quota.
Maana Patel, the 21-year-old National record holder across 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events, will hope for a good show too, making full use of her universality quota place as she, like Srihari, sets sights on Paris.