‘You have to be little crazy if you aspire to be the best’: Srihari Nataraj

After a bunch of medals in the national championships, Srihari Nataraj is looking forward to fun in Abu Dhabi next month
Srihari Nataraj reaffirmed his status as country's fastest man in pool with a multi-gold haul at the national championships in Bengaluru. ((Twitter)) PREMIUM
Srihari Nataraj reaffirmed his status as country's fastest man in pool with a multi-gold haul at the national championships in Bengaluru. ((Twitter))
Updated on Nov 06, 2021 01:43 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

It has been a topsy-turvy year for Srihari Nataraj. The young swimmer lost his father in February, saw precious training hours slip away as Covid-19 kept pools out of bounds in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, achieved the A Qualification time for the Games in Rome, and just last month, reaffirmed his status as country's fastest man in pool with a multi-gold haul at the national championships in Bengaluru.

Representing Karnataka, Srihari bagged gold medals in the 100m freestyle (49.94 seconds, national record), 50m freestyle relay, 100m backstroke (55.10, national record), 200 metre freestyle gold (1:49:78, national record), 200m backstroke (2:04:20), and 4X200m freestyle men's relay as his state topped the 74th Senior National Aquatics Championships with 17 gold, 10 silver, and 9 bronze medals.

Each time he steps in the pool, Srihari is expected to excel. Still two months shy of his 21st birthday, he has already displayed his wares at the World Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Youth Olympics, and Olympics. The whirlwind journey has seen him sink his own national records multiple times, but for the man who reportedly looks up to the legendary Michael Phelps, there is no secret ingredient to his success.

“I am a firm believer of training. You just have to train, train, train, especially at my age. There is no other way. I have been training like a madman all my life. I didn't take a day off post Olympics. Zero. I guess you have to be a little crazy if you aspire to be the best in the world,” he said.

Srihari represented India in the 100m backstroke event at the Olympics, and finished 27th out of 40 in the men’s heats with a time of 54.31 seconds, below his personal best of 53.77 which he had achieved en route his A qualification at the Sette Colli Trophy in the Italian capital.

Reflecting on his performance in Tokyo, he said: “I don't think I froze under pressure. I went to the Olympics without a physiotherapist in the swim team, and I’m used to getting a physio session for proper recovery. That's how all athletes are trained, actually. At the Olympics, we went 10 days of training and competing without a physio, and that was completely out of my routine. There's a routine that an athlete's mind and body are accustomed to. We had a physio during the Olympic qualifiers, but none at the Games.”

While systemic issues will take their time to be put to bed, Srihari has already begun training for the upcoming cycle. If anything, his regimen has become more intense post the Games; it includes 8-9 sessions a week in the pool and four sessions in the gym.

“There's no let-up. My preparation began the day my Olympics ended. We have Asian Games coming up. The whole new Olympic cycle has started and of what little I know of my sport, improvement is a result of a long-term process. I realised that at a very young age, and I've been training like this for a while. As athletes, we must understand that there is no other way to beat the Chinese, Japanese or Americans. If you want to match world-class athletes, you ought to train like one. Like a madman.

“The amount of effort that goes into shaving even half a second is monumental,” he said. "I mean, you are fighting against water. A lot depends on how your body responds to that resistance on certain days. You need to hit your top form pretty early in the race and you need to make sure your body maintains the tempo and intensity throughout. Now, you have to repeat this race after race, competition after competition. Then comes a point when your body stops growing. Once you attain your optimum height and strength, that's when technique takes over. You really need to perfect your technique, each and every stroke. Maybe then you reach a stage where your timing shows slight improvement. It is a tough, painful, lonely process.”

Coach Nihar Ameen, who has shaped Srihari's career “since the day he stepped in the pool,” swears by his ward's work ethic and intelligence. “The way he handled his father's demise was exemplary. He pulled himself up really well and never let his training suffer,” said the Dronacharya award winner.

“Also, he is a very intelligent student; always inquisitive and willing to learn. It is not as if you can bark instructions at him and he’ll blindly follow. He wants to know why he is being asked to do a certain thing, what is the rationale, and so on. Once he is convinced, you get 110 per cent commitment from him.”

Give Srihari's burgeoning pedigree and bloody-mindedness, acing the national championships was a certainty. There was, however, a minor caveat. The Swimming Federation of India announced the event at barely a week's notice, throwing Ameen and Srihari's plans off gear.

“He was expected to do well, but frankly we were not fully prepared. This was supposed to be the slot for our off-season training to work on his skills and technique. Even the best athletes do not operate at full intensity all the time, and to be honest, we were not ready. In fact, we were working on his freestyle swimming and had barely done backstroke, but he still came out with flying colours,” said the coach.

“Yeah, that's why my freestyle timings have been better,” added the swimmer. “I went below the 50-second mark in 100m freestyle, which is a great feeling. Otherwise, I think I could have definitely done better. As for the pressure of expectation, I am someone who doesn't think of these things a lot. I focus on the process, not the outcome. That is what I've done over the past 6-7 years. Of course, I visualise my races and there are certain checkpoints in my mind when I race. Very rarely do I look in the next lane to see what my competitor is doing,” said Srihari.

Srihari will next be seen at the FINA World Short Course Championships in Abu Dhabi from December 16-21, his first appearance at a short course (25m) event. "I am looking to have fun; never really did a short course before, so looking forward to it. It'll be good competing at an international event after a while,” he said.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2022