Srihari Nataraj may not have secured a podium finish at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but he no doubt emerged with immense credit. Amidst a glut of medals for Indians across sports, the swimmer’s performances may have caught the eye only fleetingly, but they represented significant improvements for Indian swimming.
The 21-year-old’s fifth-place finish in the men’s 50m backstroke was the best position by an able-bodied Indian swimmer at the CWG. In 100m backstroke, he clocked 54.31s to finish seventh, with the bronze a quarter second away. In 200m backstroke heats, he came home in 2:00.84s, the best-ever by an Indian, to finish just outside the top-eight and narrowly miss out on the final.
“Overall, it was a good performance,” Srihari said, from Birmingham. “Unfortunate that I missed out on a medal... considering my best time (53.77, 100m backstroke) would have won gold. On that day, all I had was 54.3(1). We came into the meet with the clear goal of winning a medal. It is nice to know that I am the best Indian. But it wasn’t what we had in mind.
“[But] there are some positives and lots to learn. I have been having really good starts. As the meet progressed, I started looking better, and in 200m, I looked the best. It’s important to focus on both positives and negatives, and not just on what went wrong.”
Swimming is one of those few sports that is fiercely competitive even at the continental level. At CWG, there are Australians, South Africans and Brits. At the Asian Games, there are the Chinese and the Japanese. There is simply no respite.
“I wouldn’t say it is pressure… I enjoy it. It is a challenge. I don’t mind it and [am] kind of glad that every tournament is tough to medal at. It also gives us an idea of how many guys you have to do better than. Like if I get to beat all ten here, then at the Worlds it is a couple of more guys from the USA. I look at it that way.”
There is evidence to suggest that Indian swimmers are constantly improving. For Tokyo 2020, two of them made the A-mark Olympic Qualification Time for the first time to qualify. But such is the sport that the rate of improvement at the world level far outstrips that of Indians, something Srihari hopes to bridge.
“I just have to make sure I go down and down [in timings] as well. We had hopes that I would swim faster than I did. I did still improve and was close to my best in 50m. So, there are no errors and issues. It’s just that day. There is no reason to panic. Going into the next season, I will be going much faster.”
The postponement of the Asian Games to 2023 will help, Srihari felt. “I have had a long season since the Olympics. I can now let my body recover. If Asian Games had been this year, it would have been two meets for me to peak at. So, in a way, it’s good. Next season there is going to be the Asian Games and the World Championships. I will be building towards those.”
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