Turning 18 on January 16, he will be one among the millions of Indian students writing their Class XII examinations beginning March. But the exams occupy just a small slot in a calendar packed with opportunities to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, a necessary halt in a make-or-break year for the teenager who has marked himself as the man to beat in backstroke swimming. With national records in the 50m, 100m and 200m rewritten multiple times in the past year, he gave us glimpses of his brilliant talent in a sport in which India has tasted only limited success so far.
Srihari Nataraj was destined to be a swimmer. When the doctor suggested swimming as a remedy for his elder brother Balaji’s respiratory problems, his mother Kalyani spent most evenings with her children at the pool. While the elder son spent his time in the water, an infant Srihari was close by, in his mother’s arms.
“I used to take him along for his brother’s practice. When Nihar Ameen Sir was coaching Rehan Poncha, Sandeep Sejwal, Virdhawal Khade and the likes, Hari used to watch them all practice. I think that’s how he got into swimming. He got the opportunity to see legends practice and get inspired,” Kalyani says.
Srihari took his first swimming lessons when he was two-and-a-half-years old, and he won the first ever race he competed in at five. He doesn’t remember the race, but a logbook of his performances that his father has painstakingly curated serves as a reminder.
Between 2007 and 2009, the Bengaluru lad won a number of school- and club-level events, and then began nurturing bigger dreams. He qualified for his first national championships in 2010 before turning 10, and finished fifth in the 50m backstroke as the youngest participant in the meet.
But, in Srihari’s own words, it all started in 2011 when he was crowned the sub-junior national champion.
However, even as he established himself as a backstroke specialist on the junior circuit, there was a time when his parents considered putting an end to his swimming career.
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“In 2014, we thought we will not continue with his swimming as the doctors said he was taking too much pressure and losing his temper. So we didn’t send him to coaching or tournaments after the nationals in July, but his performance in school started dropping. Jain Heritage School director Archana Viswanathan called and asked us not to stop him from pursuing swimming. The moment his coach Jayaraj Sir found out he wasn’t going to any clubs for practice, he called and questioned our decision and asked how we could stop his ward from swimming, so was the case with his strength and conditioning coach Deckline Leitao,” Srihari’s mother says. “We realised only swimming made him happy and he rejoined classes in October and the following year he set his first significant national record.”
Today, Srihari has taken over the responsibility of methodically keeping track of his performances, maintaining four documents with detailed analysis. His timings from every meet, comparison charts against the top swimmers each year, a table of medals and write-ups about him — all go into his online documents.
“It is better to keep analysing to know where I have improved, what I have done to improve and what I can do to improve in the future. It’s a good thing to keep track of your performances. In 2017, I dropped four seconds in the whole year in the 200m backstroke. In 2018, I could manage only a little over two seconds. Still not the drop I thought I would get in 2018; now I know how to change it,” he says.
Still, 2018 was a memorable year for Srihari. He made his Commonwealth Games and Asian Games debut but showed no major signs of nerves. In Gold Coast, he set two national records and made the semifinals in two of the three backstroke events (50m, 100m) that he qualified for. He followed that up with four national records and eight gold medals in the junior national championships. At the Asian Games in Jakarta, he rewrote three national records and made the final in two events. He would go on to better two of those records at the national championships in September.
At the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in October, Srihari became the first Indian swimmer to reach a final and finished sixth in the 100m backstroke, but he believes he could have done better if the Indian contingent had a physiotherapist travelling with the athletes. “It was a 20-hour flight from Doha to Bueno Aires in Argentina. I strained my right quadriceps and I had no way to release it. Luckily, I had four days to recover, so I iced and applied pain relief balms to get better,” he says. “If TOPS (Target Olympic Podium Scheme, a flagship programme of the Union ministry of youth affairs and sports) is ready to support me again, I am going to put in a proposal to make my physio travel with me for international meets.”
Srihari was enrolled in TOPS shortly after his stellar performance at Khelo India Games in February 2018 right up to the Asian Games in August. Until the sports ministry came on board, his parents had taken care of all his swimming-related expenses. It is likely that he will get TOPS funding when the new list is released in January 2019, but his parents are prepared to do to the best of the abilities if it doesn’t materialise.
Swimwear companies have been trying to sign the teen star, but he has avoided signing on the dotted line so far. “I prefer mixing up brands depending on my comfort level. Speedo, Arena, Finis had shown interest in sponsoring me, but signing up would mean I would be obliged to use only their products for competitions. That’s something I am not yet ready for. If I prefer a Michael Phelps goggles, my go-to costume would be from Arena. I do a lot of swimwear shopping when I go on tour and see which works best for me. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I sign for a single brand,” he says. “But there are talks on and if I find myself comfortable with the products, I will go for it.”
For now, his father Nataraj, who works for HCL Technologies Ltd, has no qualms about buying his swimming-related equipment. “That’s all he ever asks. Swimming costumes, starting blocks, backstroke wedges... His wishes and shopping lists revolve around swimming,” his mother says.
National coach and chief mentor Pradeep Kumar’s eyes widen when he talks about Srihari. He likens him to a rough diamond waiting to be polished. “He is a tremendous talent. How do you feel when you see a rough diamond and see how much polish can be done for that. It feels like that,” he says.
In the same breath, he compares him to a delicate crystal that has to be carefully handled as he is in the last phase of his teenage years.
“He is presently the best and the most talented swimmer in the category that we have. In a few years’ time, all the burden of Indian swimming may have to be borne by him. He is a world-class athlete, or, rather, developing into one. If he wants to go higher, he has to be much more focused. He is a junior swimmer now; he has to mature into a senior professional. When I say maturity, it’s not mental maturity or physical maturity. He has to develop an attitude to win,” Kumar, who saw the 17-year-old rewriting all three backstroke national records at the Asian Games, says.
“I have never seen a more hard-working and disciplined swimmer than Sajan Prakash. He will do beyond what is expected of him. If Srihari does even 50-60 per cent of what Sajan does, he can win a medal. But physically, he has a lot more to improve. As a world-class athlete, body structure and muscular fitness are equally important,” the coach says.
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“Srihari still has a lot of time. The next 10 years will be crucial. Now that government support is coming his way, I can suggest to him the best places to train and get exposure. We don’t have 100 people like him. We have only two in these categories. So he has to choose where he trains carefully as his improvement also depends on the group of people he trains with and the facilities he can use. We are all just facilitators,” Kumar says. Srihari says he is comfortable training in Bengaluru under coach A. C. Jairaj and being mentored periodically by Kumar, and he isn’t lured by foreign universities as he makes the transition from school to higher education.
“I get so much freedom here no matter who is coaching me. Nothing could replace this. What I am doing here is perfectly suited for me now. Jairaj Sir built up my speed and endurance. He keeps me fast all the time. The chemistry I have with the coaches will make things run more smoothly for me,” he says.
“I have been swimming for 15-16 years. So, at some level, I know exactly what I have to do and how I have to do it. So I don’t think I will get the complete freedom like I get it here. It’s my race. I will go swim the way I feel best. Because I know my physique better than anybody else, nobody can come and tell me how to swim the race. The coach is there to guide me, but Jairaj Sir has never told me how to swim the full lap. He has just told me how to finish right or to maybe push more in the third 50m. He knows that’s how I function, he gives me my freedom.”
“We also have Pradeep Sir here. He has trained almost all the swimmers who have represented India in the Olympics. I have seen how much of a difference it makes when someone trains with him. I might go to Dubai to train with him for a few months after the boards,” he says, explaining that that’s only because the pools in India lack the facilities to develop swimmers. “No pool has an underwater camera that can help fix the strokes. I had to buy a backstroke wedge to improve my performance in international meets,” he says. A scientific approach is another element missing in the Indian set-up. “I kept lagging in the last 50m and I didn’t know about the effect of lactic production causing fatigue. Until Pradeep Sir asked me to get a heart-rate monitor and a lactate analyser, I didn’t know about any of these. Now I monitor them and improve my performance,” Srihari says.
Even he knows he is a work in progress. “In the next five years, anything can happen. I don’t think I have peaked even a little yet. I haven’t pushed enough. I have progressed with my workouts, but there is so much more areas in which I can improve and increase the intensity of my performance. I am looking forward to do that in 2019,” the teenage star says.
Road to the Olympics
Srihari currently has achieved the ‘B’ qualification mark for the World Championships in the 100m and 200m backstroke, clocking 55.86s and 2:02.37s, respectively, at the Asian Games. He will need to shave off 1.8 seconds (54.06s) by June to make the ‘A’ cut for the World Championships in the 100m and bring it down by two seconds to make the ‘A’ qualification (53.85s) for 2020 Olympics. In the 200m backstroke, he has his task cut out.
He needs to drop down by a little more than four seconds (1:58.34s) to make the ‘A’ cut for the World Championships mid-year and by nearly five seconds for the 2020 Olympic qualifiers. He needs to shave off just a little more than a second to make the ‘B’ qualification for the Tokyo Games. It is a tough task, but doable with proper training and a gentle push out of his comfort zone. Ask him of his intentions for the coming year and he says: “I will finish under two minutes by April.”
He doesn’t prefix the statement with a “will attempt to” or “I guess.” There is surety in his approach to targets and no seeds of doubt in his ability to do so. He has set a realistic target of reaching the semifinals and finals at the 2020 Olympics and medals at the 2022 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. “If I get a medal at CWG, it means I am on par with the Australians. A medal at the Asian Games would mean I can compete against the Chinese. You then have only the Americans and the Russians to worry over. I can definitely look at a medal at the 2024 Olympics then,” he says.
His confidence drives one to believe in him.
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