Teen swimmer Srihari Nataraj all set for CWG

Also in the team are 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist Virdhawal Khade and Sajjan Prakash.

Ever since his first Nationals in 2010, Srihari's career has seen a rapid rise.   -  V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Among the emerging crop of Indian male swimmers, Srihari Nataraj is the anointed one. While success at the junior levels had all along seemed routine, he made the country stand up and take notice at the Senior Nationals in 2017 where he swept all three backstroke events (50m, 100m and 200m), each of them in record times, and was adjudged the best swimmer.

On the back of another record-breaking effort at the Khelo India School Games (100m backstroke) this February, the 17-year-old is set to represent India at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) starting next month in Gold Coast, Australia. Also in the team are 2010 Asian Games bronze medallist Virdhawal Khade – nearly a decade older than him – and Sajjan Prakash.

“I haven't had anything like the exposure which I will get at the Commonwealth Games,” a beaming Srihari told Sportstar. “When I was young Rohit Havaldar [2005 Senior Nationals champion] was a very big inspiration. But as years passed by, the goals started changing and went higher. Now I try to see how top swimmers around the world train.”

“Michael Phelps is my biggest influence. His coach says he never gets tired. I want to be like that. It's like saying there are no limits. In Australia Adam Peaty [Olympic Gold medallist from Britain] is going to be there. So CWG will be a great learning experience.”

Ever since his first Nationals in 2010, Srihari's career has seen a rapid rise. “I was always in the medal standards,” he stated. “I won a relay medal in my first event. The very next year I won the individual championship and set a national record. Since then every single year I have set a national record in backstroke events.”

Nowhere has this manifested better than in the 100m backstroke timings he has clocked in the past six months. His timing at the Senior Nationals was 57.20s. At the Asian Age Group Championships he finished in 56.99s, the best ever by an Indian, only for him to lower it further to 56.90s at the Khelo India School Games. In the process he also made the cut for the prestigious Youth Olympics to be held in Argentina in October.

The secret, according to his coach A.C. Jayarajan, is to make him compete against the freestyle swimmers. “I always put him with the fastest freestyler. They will go 53, 54 seconds. So he can try and catch them. His strength is that every time we go for a race, he improves his time.”

Srihari though is mindful of the gap which separates elite swimmers from the rest. With the Asian Games and Youth Olympics coming soon, it can only help him not get too far ahead of himself.

“I need to work on my underwater turn [after touching the wall],” he said. “Top swimmers do 15m but I can't hold my breathe for more than 5 and I am not fast enough.  I am able to do that in Freestyle, but I am yet to develop the lung capacity in my backstroke. If I can do that, then I can reduce my time further.”