Since he first came into the limelight with exceptional performances at the 2017 Senior Nationals, Srihari Nataraj has grown in stature. He has been consistently breaking the national records in backstroke events, evidence of it was on show once again at the recently-concluded FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Two national records with timings of 25.83 and 2:02.08 in the 50m and 200m backstroke events. In the 100m, he recorded the timing of 55.55 seconds, which was lower than his personal best 55.49.
Despite the encouraging show, Srihari is not even close to the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT), which would guarantee his spot in the next year's Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Tokyo will not have the 50m event and the OQT for the 100m and 200m backstroke events are 53.85 and 1:57.50 respectively. Srihari was also short on the Olympic Selection Time (B timings) which were set at 55.47 and 2:01.03 for the 50 and 100m events respectively.
Margins are small in swimming and it's very clear that the Indian swimmer needs to improve his timings drastically and quickly to qualify directly for the Olympics. Despite missing his mark, Srihari says he's not disappointed with his display in Gwangju.
"I was aiming for the A timings (OQT). I just felt I could achieve it. I wanted to go a bit faster but I couldn't. No, I wouldn't use the word disappointment because I tried my best and I have no regrets," Srihari told Firstpost.
"I'm going to try my best. I believe I could achieve the timings. It's only a matter of when," Srihari added.
Participating in his first World Championships, Srihari was up against world-class swimmers. It was a daunting task to perform against the best, with the knowledge that there's a significant gulf in terms of class, but the 18-year-old swimmer was not at intimidated at the big stage.
"I don't think about the other swimmers. It's an individual sport and what they do doesn't affect me. I have a lot more years to go. I was one of the youngest athletes in my events, I was younger than most of the swimmers who were faster than me. I know I can go faster and I'm working towards that," Srihari said.
It's very much evident that confidence is the hallmark of the teenage swimmer, and he's also firm with his future plans. The age is on his side and training abroad could mean opening up of more opportunities to better the timings. Srihari, though, is not at all keen to go abroad or take the NCAA route.
"No, I'm staying here in India. I'm already part of Jain University in Bengaluru and I prefer staying here for my training. Not very keen on trying the NCAA or studying in the US. Because when I train here, I get the freedom and also get to do everything the way I want to do. I have been swimming for many years and I would have some idea about how I want to do things. I trust my coach (AC Jayaraj) and he also trusts me. Staying at home makes a big difference."
Srihari says he's not missing training sessions and everything is going as per the plan, but the swimmer raises the issue of more financial assistance from the government. Srihari's name was included in the developmental group of government's TOPS program, but according to the swimmer, the assistance has not been initiated yet.
"Financial assistance would be of great help to me. My name is there in the TOPS development program, but it has not been initiated yet so I'm waiting for it. Training wise, I would need equipment like for my recovery," Srihari, who trains in Bangalore Swimming Research Centre, said.
Earlier, Srihari voiced his concern after he was forced to train without the backstroke ledge, which is used for grip. Srihari now owns a makeshift ledge, which he says has been very useful when it comes to improving his times.
"I still don't get to use the official one, which is used in big events. But I have the makeshift one from the brand called FINIS. At least I have one of my own here and I use it pretty much every day in training and my stats improved quite a bit. But I have to get used to the official one and make use of it as often as I can."
Srihari's national record-breaking swims at the World Championships resulted in 34th and 32nd overall ranks. With next year's Olympics around the corner, the best way Srihari could participate is through FINA's universality rules, which means India could field one swimmer per gender irrespective of the timings. The positive thing for Srihari is that he's getting quicker and he's only 18.