This Sunday, when the 20-year-old Srihari Nataraj takes to the starting block at the sprawling 15,000-seater Tokyo Aquatics Centre, there will be one thought that will linger on his mind, "I wish father lived to see this race."
Srihari’s father Nataraj Venkataraman, a former associate vice-president at HCL Technologies in Bengaluru, passed away in February this year. Srihari got the tragic news when he was at a training session at the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence in Bengaluru.
“We were analyzing Srihari’s starts and turns on video when his mother Kalyani called me,” recollected Srihari’s coach Nihar Ameen, a Dronacharya Awardee. “I have this habit of picking up calls on speaker. I remember Kalyani saying, "I have some bad news, Srihari’s father is no more." And Srihari was sitting right there, in front of me at that time and we both just froze,” Ameen added. Venkataraman had suffered a massive heart attack. He was only 56.
The drive back from the centre located 23 km from Srihari’s home in Malleswaram seemed like the longest journey for both Ameen and the young Srihari who spoke little the entire time.
“I must say, he was very brave and handled that situation very well. This boy is mentally very strong and that is a quality he gets from his mother,” stated Ameen.
“I think the boys (Srihari and his elder brother Balaji) handled the loss or they are not too expressive at least in front of me. Their father was very supportive of Srihari’s interest in swimming. His priority was that his son should enjoy what he is doing, results did not matter so much,” stated Srihari’s mother Kalyani, who dedicates her time to take care of the champion swimmer’s routine. While she oversees his diet, she also drives him 50km to and from to pick up and drop Srihari for practice. She's been a big influence in shaping his career.
From Dealing With the Loss to Recovering From Injury
Between his father’s demise in February to June when he made the historic ‘A’ qualifying time in Setti Colli Trophy in Rome, Srihari not only battled his emotions, but he also went through a brief health scare in May that kept him out of the pool for nearly 10 days. “It was quite challenging to restart. It was like starting from scratch, you know,” explained Ameen.
Swimming is a sport which demands training on a daily basis and missing out even a single session could impact the swimmer’s form, particularly in sprint events such as 100m backstroke that Srihari was attempting to qualify for the Olympics.
Over the past 15 months, Srihari went through many such days without swimming in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic-led lockdowns and the Karnataka Government’s reluctance to open the pools. This had clouded his prospects of qualifying.
To add to his woes, Srihari picked up a shoulder strain in Dubai when the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) organised a training camp in September 2020 as pools in India were not open.
“I think that was a tough phase for me. I wasn’t enjoying myself so much. I struggled through the sessions and returned home with an injury,” Srihari said.
“From no swimming for nearly six months in 2020 due to the pandemic to swimming nearly 10km a day was an overload for Srihari. He returned with a shoulder injury,” said Ameen. But Srihari’s unbreakable spirit and determination to make the qualifying mark kept him focused on the goal.
What also helped in this journey was sports science expert Dr Genedijus Sokolovas’s clinic held in February by the SFI. “His sessions made a big difference. He made small adjustments to my technique, underwater starts, turns – basic details which we wouldn’t count but actually makes a big difference,” stated Srihari.
Up for Bigger Feats
Having arrived in Tokyo on Sunday, Srihari along with compatriots Sajan Prakash and Maana Patel have been clocking two training sessions each day and is mighty excited ahead of his event on 25 July. He said, “I am really excited. The pool is fantastic, and I am really enjoying being at my first Olympic Games.”
Ameen believes he can beat his personal best of 53.77 seconds. "Certainly clocking 53 early or even 52 is possible. This boy is an asset to the country and with proper support, he has the potential to achieve some incredible results for India," Ameen asserted.
The confidence Srihari has gained after breaching the ‘A’ cut with 53.77 seconds in 100m backstroke, the Bengaluru lad is poised to create ripples in Indian swimming. “Next of course the aim is to win a couple of medals each in the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games next year. Going into next season, I want to race in almost every event and my aim best Indian performance in each event,” he said.
(Nandini Kumar is a former national swimmer and has worked with top English dailies in her stint as a journalist. She now works as content lead for WordsWork LLP.)
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