Srihari primed for Tokyo Games qualification event

Indian swimmer Srihari Nataraj is in Tashkent for the Uzbekistan Open swimming championships, an Olympic qualification event.

ndian swimmer Srihari Nataraj is in Tashkent for the Uzbekistan Open swimming championships.   -  Sudhakara Jain

The final stretch leading into a competition like the Olympic Games is generally reserved by athletes to even out rough edges and chisel their games to perfection. But for Srihari Nataraj, India’s best bet to achieve the elusive A-mark Olympic Qualifying Time in swimming, it has been markedly different.

A combination of factors – the National lockdown last year, a shoulder injury and a personal tragedy (loss of his father) – have meant the 20-year-old back-stroker is only back in shape now, looking to get as many events as possible three months shy of the July 23 start date for the Tokyo Games.

This week he is in Tashkent for the Uzbekistan Open swimming championships, an Olympic qualification event, hoping to bridge the 0.84 seconds gap between his best timing (54.69s) and the A-mark (53.85s) in his pet 100m backstroke race scheduled for Thursday.

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“I had lost my pace completely,” Srihari says, recalling the time of the lockdown last year. “Sir (Nihar Ameen, his coach) and I had to train like it was another off season and like I was out of form. But based on how I have been training and how I have been feeling – in the gym, during workouts and the pool – I could say this is the best shape I have ever been in.”

“I just did my best time in 50m backstroke (25.46s at an invitational event in Bengaluru) without a shave and a taper. That’s another sign that I am on track.”

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Inputs from Genadijus Sokolovas, a renowned physiologist and sports science expert from the United States who has in the past worked with legends like Michael Phelps, have helped too. Sokolovas was invited by the Swimming Federation of India in February for a few sessions with the Olympic hopefuls.

“He asked me to add a couple more dolphin kicks to increase my underwater pace,” Srihari says. “We noticed it made a difference. He also asked me to pull shallower (to reduce the drag). The body is now adjusting to move that way and that is how my stroke will be.”

The Uzbekistan event might be Srihari’s best bet. The environment is familiar, having raced here in the 2017 Asian Age Group Championships and done well. With COVID-19 continuing to wreak havoc, tournament schedules around the world are at best dicey.

“There is of course some little pressure that this might be my last option or even the best option,” Srihari admits. “[But] I am trying to stay calm, knowing that the training has been done.”

“I have never been this fit, this lean and big at the same time. I am very hopeful that I will get the A-qualification done. That’s what sir feels, I feel and the training shows.”