With swift backstrokes, Srihari stokes big hopes
To keep him out of trouble, Srihari Nataraj’s mother put him in the pool when he was two. Sixteen years later, Srihari, already six-foot-three, clocked 54.69 seconds in a 100m backstroke semi-final at the world junior swimming championships in Budapest. It was a national record and under the ‘B’ qualification mark for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Srihari finished seventh in the final but Khajan Singh, the 200m butterfly silver medallist at the 1986 Asian Games, and Nihar Ameen, the former national coach, believe they have seen enough to predict that he is an Indian swimming sensation in the making.
Not a common occurrence in a country that has won only two Asian Games swimming medals — Virdhawal Khade (2010) and Sandeep Sejwal (2014), both bronze — since Singh.
“I’m happy with my times but not completely satisfied as I feel I can go a lot faster. I’ve always been targeting the A (qualification),” says Srihari, ‘Hari’ to friends, family and the swimming fraternity.
The ‘target’ for the ‘A’ qualification, which assures entry at the Games, is 53.85 seconds. Srihari has till May 2020 to get that and has steadily lowered personal best over the past 16 months — it was 56.65s at last year’s Commonwealth Games and was lowered at the Asian Games and world championships.
“I’m positive that I’ll get the Olympic qualification time for both the 100 and 200 back (stroke),” says Srihari.
The ‘A’ qualification mark in the 200m backstroke is 1:57.50. Nataraj managed 2:01.70 in Budapest, another national record. At the world championships last July, his time was 2:02.08.
‘Best bet for 2022 Asian Games’
“For the last three years, I have been requesting the government to provide maximum support for such a young talent,” says Singh. For Singh, Srihari is India’s best hope for a gold medal in swimming at the 2022 Asian Games.
“He will be around 21-22 and that is the best age for a swimmer to hit peak performance. Given the right training, Srihari could add a gold medal to that tally,” he says. “He is tall, has good strokes and is a fighter to the core. His strong point is backstroke swimming and he should concentrate on that.”
“He has two strong points, one is his size. He (also) has a good frame and is very driven,” says Ameen.
Srihari says he will focus on the senior national championships and the Asian age-group competition (in Bengaluru from September 24 to October 2) and will continue training to qualify for the Olympics after that.
“We don’t have many meets in the country; he’s been participating in international meets a lot these days but needs more,” says Ameen.
Swimming happened to Srihari by chance. His brother was advised to swim for health reasons and their mother put the younger sibling in thinking it would be the best way to rein in a restless child. The brother gave up but for Srihari, the bug stuck.
Srihari was the youngest to qualify for a final in the senior national championship and he hadn’t turned 10 then. His senior international debut happened at age 14 at the South Asian Games. Srihari took part in the last Commonwealth Games and made the 100m backstroke final in the 2018 Asian Games. In the first Khelo India Games last year, Srihari won six medals. This year, it was seven. And he is a multiple medallist at national championships breaking national records in the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke in the process. For 200m races, Srihari always wears a black cap. For 50m and 100m, he has different caps, both white.
“I am done with schooling…Training is practically the only thing I’ve done for a while,” he says. That happens under coach AC Jairaj at the Ramakrishna Hegde Swimming Pool in Mathikere, Bengaluru. Srihari trained with Ameen, which meant he could see Khade and Sejwal from close, before moving to Jairaj. “He needs to build strength and fitness,” says Ameen.
Srihari maintains every detail of a race — his timings, those of his rivals, the splits and other technical details — in a spreadsheet which is regularly updated. It helps him monitor progress and, in sport where milliseconds matter, that of his peers.
Michael Phelps, the most successful swimmer in the history of modern Olympics, is his idol as are Lionel Messi and Rohit Havaldar, a 29-year-old backstroker from Kohlapur in Maharashtra. But in a country where Olympic-size swimming pools are rare, an Olympic medal does seem a tall order.
To go or not to go abroad
Singh says Paris 2024 could be Srihari’s best bet. Having done a training stint in Australia in his time, Singh is keen that Srihari moves abroad with his coach.
“Going abroad and training is a double-edged sword because it involves a culture shift and a lot of different things,” says Ameen.
“It did not help the batch of 8-10 swimmers who went to South Africa a few years ago to train under the coach of Chad le Clos, Olympic and world champion… He should get the best possible facilities to train and improve as he is the most talented swimmer in the country at this moment.”