Prasanta Karmakar- The self-made prodigy

January 10, 2018

The point is to dream. To seek with all your heart. When you do that, whatever it is that you are seeking will come to you.

Pransanta Karmakar is one of India’s most accomplished sportspersons with 86 gold medals in 86 individual category events, and a winner of 37 medals in an international career

An Arjuna Awardee, a national swimming champion for 16 consecutive years, gold medalist in 86 individual category events, and a winner of 37 medals in an international career spanning over 13 years, PRASANTA KARMAKAR is one of India’s most accomplished sportspersons.

Leaving his home penniless after being challenged by his father, and spurred by his immense self-belief, Prasanta has risen from extremely humble and challenging beginnings to occupy the most exalted place in Indian swimming. He has done this only by his sheer grit and attitude.

He was the first differently abled Indian to win a medal at the 2003 World Aquatic Championships in Barcelona, and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Most of his awards were not won at para events but competing with individuals who were fully able. Notably, his awards span several disciplines including Swimming, Table Tennis, Volleyball and Cycling. He won two golds at the 2013 Asian Para Cycling Championship in New Delhi.

Prasanta wears many hats, driven by a passion rarely seen, not just to excel, but to equally contribute to the larger cause of the sport. They say legends are self-made, and there cannot be a finer example than Prasanta Karmakar

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You have started cycling recently, 2-3 years ago; Tell us about that journey.

I couldn’t participate in the 2012 Olympics. On the one hand I did not get the financial support due from the system, while on the other I had no money of my own, as I was not working at the time. To cover my basic expenses I had to rely on loans from people.  Under the circumstances I couldn’t qualify for the Olympics by a margin of 0.24 micro seconds.

I battled depression after, but I still trained hard, which caused an injury. After the injury, I stopped swimming, but I still weight trained in the gym daily. As part of that routine I used to cycle in the gym on alternate days. Once while cycling, I heard about the Asian Para Cycling Championship. I felt I should give it a try. Ironically, I did not even have a cycle at the time and prepared using the cycle at the gym. I got selected in the Indian team for the championship. My past experience of swimming helped me immensely in this. Even my injury was of help as this led me to believe that whatever happens, happens for good. It is only because of the injury, that I participated in cycling, and won the gold medal.

If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will likely find some differently abled person in your neighbourhood. They may even go on to win an Olympic medal.

Are you a full-time coach or do you still participate in sports?

I both coach and swim, and want to participate in the 2018 Asian Games.

Your list of achievements are impressive. You have also won the Arjuna award. Congratulations for that and for all your records.

There is perhaps not another Indian who has all the medals that I have.

Is there anything else you wished you accomplished in your illustrious swimming career?

I wanted to swim across the English Channel but for some reasons couldn’t do it. My regret is that I missed the Olympics. I have been swimming for the past 22 years and except an Olympic medal, I have all the other medals.

What is your most memorable sporting moment?

The Delhi Commonwealth Games was a particularly memorable sporting achievement. It was held in our country and many Indian athletes including para athletes participated in it. No one had any expectation of me winning a medal, but I knew, and so did my coach, that I could win a medal. We trained according to that expectation. We trained very hard for up to 8-10 hours each day. I did 200 kg squats. And despite not having a hand, I did 100 kilo bench presses.

That’s very admirable.

You can’t imagine how we worked.  We used to swim in cold water in the winter days of Bangalore, where the temperature falls to below 14 degrees celsius. My then coach Pradeep Kumar, will vouch for this. Imagine, we used to start training in the freezing water at 5:30 in the morning. And in that freezing water, we used to swim for about 2.5 to 3 hours. Life had become one track. I left home in 2006, went to Pune, trained there for 2 years before shifting to Bangalore in 2008. I recently moved to Haryana, where I work.

Being young at that time and living away from your family, you surely must have missed them; how was that experience for you?

You know, I never received any financial support from home. The family conditions were such. I remember, when, I used to come back from swimming training my father used to tell me ‘you are going to eat two eggs now and you know, how much two eggs cost? 10 rupees!’ I was warned at home that if I went to the swimming pool any more, I would be thrown out of home. That was a turning point and I ran from home. I started working at a swimming pool where I also trained myself each morning and evening.

I survived all by myself.

That’s truly inspirational. How is the relationship between you and your family now?

The financial condition at home was bad though it has improved now. In lower middle class families, there is just one target to earn money to put some food on the table. Once you are financially stable to have food, then you think of having say a Nike shoes or T-shirt or Timex watch and then you progress. When you have nothing, you don’t even have a friend; and when you get name and fame you will have a lot of people surrounding you.

You were very courageous and brave that you continued to work on your swimming despite all odds, but what motivated you to become a professional?

The challenges I faced at every stage, the disappointments, the shut doors, the advantage some people took of my naivety; all of that motivated me to fight back and fight hard. That anger I converted into a passion to excel. I wanted to be at a point where I would never again have to face such a situation. I wanted to be at a place where people would stand up and take notice. I wanted to do something big in my life.

When you were young, we read that you were interested in football and other sports.

I grew up with regular kids and went to a regular school. Even now my friends are all regular sportspeople. In fact, I have always loved sports. I fly kites, fish, do rock climbing etc. My aim is to climb Mount Everest one day. I have trekked to a height of 6000 meters. I was a volleyball player in the Indian national team. In Table Tennis I was the national Paralympic champion and I remain unbeaten! In fact, I even made Indian women’s volleyball team.

That’s inspirational. So how did you select the talent?

I used to go to villages to select talented kids for swimming. I could predict which sport a child is likely to excel in. I remember this one instance where I saw this differently abled child; she must have been 8 or 9 years of age, and I spoke with her mother about coaching her. But she was shocked! After 3 years I chased them again. This time I managed to convince the mother, and I had her train and play table tennis. She played 3-4 internationals for India in Paralympics and is now pursuing her MBBS. There are several such children I am associated with, and I believe, I have a knack to predict potential well. To give you another example – a year and a half ago, a mother came to me with her hyperactive child seeking advice. I initiated her into table tennis. Today that child is a district champion and even defeated a ranked player in Bengal. Her family’s financial condition is extremely poor, so much so that her father cannot even buy her a table tennis racket, but the child is extraordinary. She is 12 years old now.

Moreover, in the sport of swimming,  I am confident that god-willing, one of my students, a boy will win a medal in the 2020 Olympics and another student, a girl will win a medal at the 2024 Olympics.

Every pursuit has its challenges. Tell us a bit about your struggle and what was your biggest challenge?

It has been a huge struggle, but god has been kind. For going to the swimming pool, I did not have the money to pay bus fare, so I used to borrow money from people. Later I shifted to Pune. I must say that Pune’s people are very kind and readily give lifts. I used to take a lift to go to Deccan Gymkhana and then back home to Balewadi each day. That’s about 18-20 kms one way. And in between I also used to work as a swimming coach, so I could earn something and eat something. This tough phase of life has taught me a lot.

The biggest challenge is to keep myself motivated. If you lose the battle of your spirit, nobody can make you win.

So, how do you keep yourself motivated?

I think of all the difficult times I faced, all those closed doors, and obstacles and the naysayers, and my answer to them all is my performance in the pool.
Once you make a commitment, you must stick by it.

How did it feel to accomplish all these things after beating overwhelming odds?

I have no feelings. Just last year, when I was on my way back from the US I cried on the airplane – I was angry with myself – I had no one with me through my life. I always prayed to god to give me so much strength that I am able to get ahead and achieve, and nobody stops me. Right from 2001 to 2016 in all competitions I have been an individual champion. I was India’s fastest swimmer until this year.

How do you prepare for big competitions?

See this is sports science. You can just do 3 big competitions in a year because you only peak thrice a year at best. When there is a big competition like the Olympics, then we can peak only twice. So we make an elaborate training plan accordingly. We work to a strategy, a plan, customized to each swimmer. We identify issues and problems of swimmers, and work on resolving each issue.

How do you keep yourself composed after a difficult loss?

To become a world champion, it’s 10% physical, the rest is mental make-up. It is how you control your emotions. It is about staying positive no matter what; staying focused no matter what. In our ecosystem one is judged by the medals one wins. In such circumstances, you need to learn to control your emotions. My sports psychologist and my mental trainer have worked a lot with me and it has helped tremendously. I am very thankful to sports science. Indian sports science is almost at par with those in the advanced countries, and Indian sportspersons should learn how to use sport science.

You have done much by yourself. But there must be somebody who has supported you, coach or someone.

Many people have supported me. Swimmer Meenakshi Pahuja supported me mentally. Sukhbir Singh Tokas helped me a lot, both financially and other ways. Because of him I am in Haryana and in this place. Apart from that my first coach, Tapan Kumar Panigrahi and the people of Pune and Bangalore helped me a lot; I will tell you a touching incident. DNA in Bangalore did a front page story titled ‘Bangalore, This swimmer needs your help’ which was written by Dev Sukumar. A 9-year-old girl came with her two younger brothers and her grandfather. She gave me Rs. 12,000 from her pocket money and said ‘please don’t leave swimming. You have to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games for India. I tried a lot to connect with them again but could not get their number.

You spoke of your coach and how he helped. Do you have any mantras from him that you still hold very close?

I have trained with many coaches. Everyone has a level of teaching. Every 2-3- years when my performance plateaued I used to change my coach. And in 1.5-2 months there would be a spike in my performance again. I planned this approach. It upseted a lot of people, but ultimately, I won a medal for the country because of this approach.

Is there any other advice from anyone which you would like to share?

There is this one coach – he use to coach at the district or state level – but he told me this one profound thing. He said, Prashant, Failure is the pillar of success. He said this in a context. I never used to compete with Paralympic swimmers but with able bodied swimmers. I have participated in lot of competitions. But my aim was simple. I never wanted to come last. Second last would do. But, never last.

How would you describe your journey in brief

Have you seen a cat? A cat is a docile animal. No matter what you do, it will still come back lovingly to you. But confine it to a small cage and keep harassing it, at some point it will attack you, and that too in a manner so ferocious that you will never turn and look at a cat ever again in your life. That’s my life story. I had no money for food, home or even an identity for that matter. And I had to fight back. So the phrase that comes to me is ‘Offence is the best defence’ to fight for myself, for the country, for the family.

Sports culture is not developing in India as much as it should. How can we win more often?

India can indeed win several Olympic medals provided institutional support becomes stronger. Our sole focus has to be on giving our best performance and winning. There is a discipline to it. We need to rope in sports doctors, physios, masseurs, and other experts to help us craft the perfect winning strategy. We need to get better understanding of rehabilitation. Beyond bookish knowledge, we must have people who have strong applied knowledge such as former players.

What is your message for the general public?

If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will likely find some differently abled person in your neighborhood. Now, if you take some initiative, reach out to them and maybe introduce them to sports, she or he will overcome their physical limitation and start leading a normal life. And, who knows, in the times to come, she or he may go on to win medals for the country. A small thought, a small initiative from your side, holding their hand, encouraging them to come out of their shell and move beyond their fears, can become a defining point not just in their lives, but in yours and even the country’s. They may even go on to win an Olympic medal.

What would you like to tell the Indian government?

Involve former players, those who have been through the grind in the development of sports in the country. For, they have a better understanding of the sport. The government should motivate them, give with due respect, and utilize their services to groom the next generation of successful sportspersons. What they can do, nobody else can. Combine their knowledge and experience of the sport with with the best sports scientists, physios, nutritionists, gym experts and so on to generate outstanding results. This coming together of experts with professionals will result in the creation of a mix that will be hugely successful for talent. Government needs to deploy its talent assets properly.

Finally what is your dream?

That my son should win an Olympic medal in swimming. Whenever it happens, that is. The point is to dream. To seek with all your heart. When you do that, whatever it is that you are seeking will come to you.

To know more about Prasanta Karmakar, visit his profile

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