Srihari Nataraj on a quest to become first Indian Olympic qualifier in swimming

  • Srihari achieved the Olympics B qualification standard in 100m backstroke at the FINA World Junior Championships in 2019 with a national mark of 54.69s. But that doesn’t guarantee him an automatic berth for the Tokyo Olympics.
India's Srihari Nataraj(AP)
India's Srihari Nataraj(AP)
Updated on Apr 17, 2021 06:46 AM IST
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ByAvishek Roy

Srihari Nataraj did not dive into a pool for five months last year. There was a time when the youngster was pleading with authorities to open the swimming pools, at least for those preparing for Tokyo Olympics qualification, as he saw training restart in most other sports post lockdown.

The pools, however, remained shut and Srihari’s agonizing wait continued until late August when arrangements were made for a small contingent to train at a centre in Dubai.

Srihari achieved the Olympics B qualification standard in 100m backstroke at the FINA World Junior Championships in 2019 with a national mark of 54.69s. But that doesn’t guarantee him an automatic berth for the Tokyo Olympics. What he has been aiming for is the A qualification timing of 53.85s which will give him a direct entry into Tokyo. The fact that no Indian swimmer has ever achieved an ‘A’ qualification timing for the Olympics shows the enormity of the job at hand.

But the 20-year-old from Bengaluru--one of the most talented swimmers India has ever seen–knows his potential. On Thursday, at the Uzbekistan Open Championships, Srihari was a man on mission. He came agonizingly close to breaching the Olympic A qualification mark, twice beating his own national mark in 100m backstroke in a matter of a few hours. Srihari clocked 54.10s in the heats and then shaved off another 0.03 secs off it in the final where he won the gold medal. But his brilliant effort was still not enough. He was just 0.22 secs off the A qualification timing. Yet, it was a great sign of things to come. To have come so close to the qualification mark in his first international event in almost a year will boost his confidence. Srihari still has time till June 27 to make the A cut, though he is yet to decide on the events he would compete in.

During those tough times when he could just do physical training at home, and swimming meant only to go through the feel of his strokes in his mind, Nataraj was desperately in search of a training centre in Australia and a few other countries. But that too did not work out. Some of his peers had the luxury to continue with their training abroad as they were outside of India when the global lockdown started.

However, once Srihari was back in the pool in late August, there was no looking back. He trained in Dubai for sometime and then came back to Bengaluru when the government finally allowed swimming pools to open in August. At the Dravid-Padukone Academy for Excellence in Bengaluru, Srihari got guidance from renowned sports science expert Genadijus Sokolovas, who conducted a six-day workshop for elite swimmers. He helped him finetune his technique. Sokolovas came with the huge experience of working with USA Swimming for eight years and having worked with a legend like Michael Phelps. Sokolovas put them through various tests such as biomechanics-based technique analysis, swim power test, start and turn analysis, lactate profiles for training zones and recovery protocols. Every but helps in shaving off those microseconds Srihari needs now to become the first Indian swimmer to qualify directly for an Olympic.

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Saturday, January 22, 2022