Other Sports

What it takes to be a competitive swimmer in India

When Srihari Nataraj was a little boy, his mother, Kalyani, was keen that he try out every sport.

A volleyball player from Pudukottai, near Thanjavur, she represented Tamil Nadu in the junior Nationals. Her cousins, including former international Sivaranjani, were talented swimmers. Even the family she married into was packed with sportspersons: her husband, Nataraj Venkataramanan, was a Bangalore University cricketer and his brothers, Anantharaman and Srinivasan, played in the Ranji Trophy.

Srihari was a good cricketer, as well, at school. “I used to bowl fast and leg-spin. I used to play basketball, tennis and football, too,” says the 18-year-old.

But it was swimming that Srihari savoured the most. The love for the blue waters virtually began in his mother’s arms while watching his elder brother, Balaji, swim. Balaji had bronchial issues and a doctor suggested swimming. Srihari, just two and half then, wanted to have fun in the pool as well.

A.C. Jayarajan, the coach, was only too happy to take the little fellow in. A few years later, observing Srihari’s dedication and his increasing height, Jayarajan felt he had a special talent on his hands. Soon, the youngster began winning medals in age-group events in Karnataka and at the national level.

But his parents were not sure whether swimming would be a long-term affair for Srihari. Many of his friends moved to famed coach Nihar Ameen’s academy, and since he felt lonely, his parents sent him there. But about a year later, with some of his friends dropping out, Srihari was unhappy; he often looked stressed out.

“We felt he could not withstand the pressure of competition,” says Kalyani. “So, I stopped him swimming for three months, he was 13 then, to make him focus on academics. Even a doctor advised that. But there was an immediate change in Srihari.” The teenager, in the eighth standard then, went into his shell.

“One day, Archana Viswanath, the principal at Jain School, called me and said, ‘Madam, if you want your son to be proper, just send him back to swimming and don’t expect anything from the sport. Only then can he focus on academics. Otherwise it will hurt him mentally,’” reveals his mother.

Turning point

So back they went to Jayarajan and told him that they just wanted their son to be happy. The country should be thankful for that, for Srihari now promises to become one of its finest swimmers ever. At the Nationals, which concluded this week in Bhopal, he won the ‘best swimmer’ award after claiming eight gold medals (four individual, four in the relays).

Breaking records has become a habit for the Bengaluru boy. At the recent World Junior Championships in Budapest, Srihari broke his own senior Indian records in all three backstroke events, entering the final in the 50m and 100m and finishing sixth and seventh respectively. This, after having set two of those records at the senior Worlds in Gwangju, South Korea, the previous month.

Despite finishing sixth, Srihari feels he could have won the 50m backstroke bronze at the junior Worlds, a medal he missed by 0.15s. “I wanted that medal, I was ready to do anything for that. Mentally, I was ready to push myself more than I had ever done before,” he says.

“I knew I had to be anything below 25.20 for a medal, I was aiming for something like 24.90,” says Srihari, who clocked 25.50s, a new National Record.

Jayarajan, who was at Budapest, feels that the start let Srihari down. “He didn’t get a good start, it was better in the 100m. That’s why he lost the medal by such a close margin,” says Jayarajan. “It would have been the country’s first medal and would have changed Indian swimming … the sort of change that Saina Nehwal brought to badminton. Youngsters would have started believing that they can do it too.”

But to put things in perspective, it must be recognised that Indian swimming faces a huge struggle to stay afloat even at the Asian and Commonwealth levels. Consider Srihari’s opponents. China’s Xu Jiayu is the 100m backstroke world champion and South African Zane Waddell won the 50m backstroke title at Gwangju. Add the Japanese, Chinese, Australian and British competitors to the mix and you get a sense of how tough the life of an Indian swimmer is. Even a bronze at the Asiad is rare.

Moreover, with very little support from the government, swimming is incredibly expensive. “We have spent around Rs. 8 lakh in the last couple of months for the two World Championships, the Nationals and his costumes,” says Kalyani. “It was good last year, he was in the Target Olympic Podium (TOP) scheme and all his expenses were taken care of for eight months till the Asian Games. But this year we have been getting only Rs 10,000 per month under the Khelo India scheme.”

The heavy bills and India’s poor history in the sport can pull anybody down. But surprisingly, Srihari is highly buoyant. “I can’t sink, I can never drown. Even if I let go of my breath and try to sit in the water, I will float back up,” he says.

Blessed with this special quality, he is keen to break boundaries and stretch his body’s limits. He has made Tokyo’s ‘B’ cut in the 100m and 200m, the two backstroke events that figure in the Olympics, and is confident of achieving the ‘A’ standard, too.

Qualifying for Tokyo is his immediate goal. He is 0.84s away in the 100m (‘A’ standard: 53.85s; Srihari’s personal best: 54.69s) and a little more than four seconds off the pace in the 200m (‘A’ standard 1:57.50s; PB 2:01.70s). But he feels both are achievable. The Asian Age-Group Championships, in Bengaluru from September 24, will offer him another chance to attempt them.

Medals in the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Paris Olympics are among his long-term goals. “But I take it one step at a time,” Srihari says. “I’m pretty sure I can drop to 52 seconds in the 100m by the 2022 Asiad.”

What makes him tick?

“A lot of coaches have said I’ve got a very good ‘catch’. The water hardly slips on my pull, I need to work a lot on my kick but my pull has always been very good.”

The ‘catch’ is that phase of the arm-stroke where the swimmer begins to apply propulsive force — “basically the amount of power you put to push through,” says Srihari. “There are many swimmers who are stronger than me but what matters is how you use it in water. I think I use the power I have very well in water.

“I try to be as smooth as I can, that’s like the most important thing for me. It doesn’t matter if I don’t push through the water. For me, the smoother I try to be, the faster I am,” says Srihari, who has improved his personal best by about one second in the 50m and more than two seconds in the 100m.

Srihari still has mountains to move, but he is ready for the challenge.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 5:43:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/buoyant-in-choppy-waters/article29355162.ece

Next Story