Srihari Nataraj has made a habit of breaking the national records in swimming. At last year's senior nationals, he broke records in all three backstroke events and was also adjudged the best swimmer. He improved his records in this year's Khelo India Games and at the Commonwealth Games, winning as many as six gold medals and one silver in the former meet. At the recently-concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, Srihari, once again, shattered three national records in 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events, reaching the final in two events and finishing sixth in the 200m.
All this when he's just 17. Safe to say, Srihari, who hails from Bengaluru, is one of the most talented swimmers to have emerged from India.
"I started when I was just two years old. My mother took me to the pool along with my elder brother, who was also interested in swimming. Initially, I loved it because I was having fun in the pool. But when I won my first race at the age of five, I started enjoying it. Once I got the habit of winning, I never wanted to stop," Srihari said during an interview with Firstpost.
At Jakarta, Srihari became the first Indian swimmer since 1986 to reach the 100 metres backstroke final. He broke the men's national record twice in the 200 metres event. First in the heats and then in the final. He finished sixth in the 200 metres event with a timing of 2:02.83. China's Xu Jiayu, who won the gold medal in the same event, clocked 1:53:99, while the word record stands at 1:51:92.
"I was pretty satisfied with my timings at the Asian Games. Maybe I could've gone faster in the 200 metres, and if I had stayed at home and trained on my own, I feel it could've been better than staying in a camp. But I'm still happy with my performance," Srihari said.
Srihari is aware of the fact that he has a lot of water to cover if he wants to bridge the gap in terms of winning medals at highest levels, and right now he's is aiming to break the two-minute barrier in the 200 metres backstroke. "I didn't set any specific time period to break the two-minute barrier in the 200 metres. Of course, I would like to do it as soon as possible. I have been training hard and I will aim to break the mark in the upcoming senior nationals, which starts from 19 September or later this year at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires," Srihari said.
To swim against world class opponents might be little overwhelming for any 17-year-old, but judging by Srihari's words, the swimmer doesn't come across as the one who gets intimidated easily. At the Asian Games, Srihari was up against the best of the continent – swimmers from China and Japan have won medals at the world stage. When asked about pressures of competing against the best and whether he tries to learn by observing them, Srihari says, "I was only concentrating on my races, focusing on what I need to do. I have to keep in mind that they are not my idols anymore but my rivals. I did observe them whenever I could, especially looking at their underwater techniques and trying to learn as much as possible," Srihari added.
Srihari has not even turned 18 so better swimming days are very much ahead of him. But to look at it differently, Srihari has been participating in various age levels since last 10 years. He has also expensively travelled because of his swimming assignments, so when he says 'facilities' as the need of the hour for Indian swimmers, he makes a very pertaining point. Srihari specialises in backstroke, and when he goes to big events, he has to use the ledge for grip before the start of each race. Srihari doesn't train with the backstroke ledge in India, and it takes time to adjust to it. So he wants the federation to make the ledge available to swimmers in India.
Apart from the facilities, Srihari wants the federation to spot talents at an early age. He wants the coaches to give specific training based on the swimmer's strengths and weaknesses. He doesn't mean individual attention on each swimmer because that's nearly impossible, but more focused on the technicalities involved with each kind of swimming event.
A typical training day for Srihari starts at around 7 am and ends at 9 am, which includes multiple gym and practise sessions. With his sights set on achieving medals in the world events, Srihari knows about the gruelling path he has undertaken. He's prepared for the tough life, where he has to spend many cruel hours in training and compete against world's best without any guarantee of success. In swimming, the margins are small, with swimmers losing a medal by one hundredth of a second. For Srihari, this also means sacrificing his college life and compromising on things he loves.
"My college (Sri Bhagawan Mahaveer Jain College) here in Bengaluru has been very supportive to me. I don’t get to attend classes because of my training schedule and events, but they understand it and I just go and write the exams. Apart from swimming, I like tennis and football. I used to watch both the sports, but unfortunately now I don’t get the time. I love watching Rafael Nadal and I support Barcelona FC," Srihari said.
For a generation that has witnessed Michael Phelps' record-breaking exploits in the pool, it's easily understood why Srihari cites him as his biggest inspiration. There is a case for an assumption about the American swimmer that his biggest achievement is not winning 23 gold medals in Olympics but inspiring thousands around the globe to take up the sport. Srihari possesses talent and determination in abundance, now it's time to make a big splash at the highest levels.
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Updated Date: Sep 18, 2018 17:38:13 IST