"Mental, physical, financial": Srihari Nataraj on challenges of being Olympic-level swimmer

Nataraj is one among the six Indian swimmers who have already secured Olympic Selection Time (OST)
By Samrat Chakraborty

At 19, rising Indian swimming sensation Srihari Nataraj is poised to make it count at the Tokyo Olympics.

Nataraj is one among the six Indian swimmers who have already secured the lower B qualification mark or Olympic Selection Time (OST) in the 100m backstroke for the upcoming Olympics. But the B qualification mark doesn't ensure an automatic spot for the Olympics next year.

The B qualification mark puts Nataraj in the running to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics if the total quota of swimmers is not reached by the end of the qualification period.

Nataraj, at a young age, carries the experience of representing India at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships, 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 Asian Games. The Bengaluru-born Nataraj is already considered by many as India’s brightest swimming prospect.

In 2019, at a tender age of 18, he broke the senior national record in all the three backstroke events at the World Junior Championship in Budapest. He finished sixth in the 50m event with a time of 25.50s and seventh in the 100m. He achieved a national record time of 54.69s in the 100m semifinals which also ensured he achieved the ‘B’ qualification mark.

A month earlier, he had broken two national records at the World Senior Championships.

Success has not come easy for Nataraj. It took him years of regular training to make it count at the international level.

Being an Olympic level swimmer (or in any sport) is a challenge. I've been swimming for almost 18 years and it's taken me a long time to get to the level I'm at, being an Olympic level swimmer is very challenging mentally, physically, and financially. Srihari Nataraj to Olympic Channel

Srihari Nataraj in action

Nataraj has dreamt of representing India at the Olympics for a long time. He is further working to improve himself as he targets the A qualification mark. He is 0.8s off the A qualification mark in the 100m backstroke (qualification is 53.85s).

But the youngster will not be satisfied with just that as he hopes to bring home an Olympic medal someday.

Going to the Olympics has been a goal for a long time. And getting the A qualification mark is what I've been working on. But I'm aiming a lot higher than just an A qualification mark, looking at getting a medal at the Olympics which is the bigger dream at the moment.

Moreover, Nataraj has credited his parents, coach and support staff for working rigorously behind the scenes to mould him into one of India’s best swimmers.

He also highlighted the contribution of the Sports Authority of India (SAI), Swimming Federation of India (SFI) and the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) - a flagship program of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in an attempt to provide assistance to India’s top athletes.

"My parents, coach, strength coach, physio, nutritionist; it's been a team effort to get to this level and also the support from SAI, SFI by including me into the TOPS scheme has really helped me a lot," he mentioned.

The Coronavirus pandemic disrupted the sporting scenario across the globe and swimming has also suffered which affected the preparations of swimmers. But a three-member elite swimming team which included Virdhawal Khade (50m freestyle), Kushagra Rawat (400m freestyle) and Nataraj underwent a training session in Dubai recently.

That camp has helped Nataraj get back into the groove as he prepares for the upcoming events.

"It was very important to get back into the water soon and the Dubai training camp gave us the access to get back into the water after the entire lockdown due to Covid," Nataraj said.