Considered one of India’s finest ever swimmers, Srihari Nataraj reached the finals of the 100m and 50m men’s backstroke events at the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham, to produce a complete performance that was arguably the best by an Indian to not finish on the podium.
In his first major event since Tokyo Olympics, the 21-year-old did not return with a medal from Birmingham, but in arguably the toughest sport at CWG, he reached finals in not one but two events. And in the third, came up with a national best timing.
His fifth-place finish in the men’s 50m backstroke put him within touching distance of a medal. Additionally, with 54.31s in the men’s 100m backstroke final, he finished seventh. He clocked 2:00.84s in the 200m backstroke heats to again, secure the best-ever timing by an Indian, and just narrowly miss the spot in the final.
While his performances are certainly worth applauding in the context of Indian swimming, the Tokyo Olympian rues as an opportunity missed. His personal best of 53.77 at the 58th International Trophy “Settecolli” in 2021, which is a national record, was better than the timing that won the 100m backstroke final. Bronze went to a timing of 54.06s, while Srihari finished with 54.31s. “It is going to sting knowing that my personal best in the 100 back would have got me a gold,” he had posted on Instagram.
And so, while he is aware that the achievements are to be savoured, Srihari is also left with a feeling that is rather bittersweet.
It just conveyed the sense of the expectations he has from himself.
Here are excerpts from his conversation with Scroll.in where he spoke about his performances in Birminngham, his start to the sport and more.
Your performance at the Commonwealth Games is perhaps one of the best ever by an Indian at a global event. How did you see your campaign?
Oh, it feels good to hear that. But the entire goal going into the Games was to come back with a win. And the fact that my personal best (53.77 in 100m backstroke) could have actually won a medal doesn’t really make this news any sweet but it is what it is. I’m glad I could get this done and it’s good to be in this position but during the entire Games, the entire goal was to come back with a medal.
What would you say has been your biggest learning at Birmingham?
I always try to pick up something from, not just every time I race, but from every time I swim. There’s always something you can learn and something you can fix. So, I don’t think I figured out a tweak or something extremely specific but what I learned was to understand how sports actually works. That there comes a time where sometimes it’s just not your day. And in the Commonwealth Games, it was one of those, like, the finals of the 100m backstroke was one of those days. It just wasn’t my day. Sometimes, you can plan everything completely... like I planned everything, we got everything done according to plan, we trained really well, we did the prep, we did the final details and I got to the race and tried extremely hard. I had nothing left after the race but it just didn’t happen.
Were you able to reach that realisation about it not being your day almost instantly?
No, it was a process because I couldn’t figure it out. I was in shock in a nihilist way. It wasn’t clicking why I wasn’t able to swim as fast as I had already swam before. So it did take some time but I had multiple races back to back and it could have just been a problem if I was hung up on it for days. Another thing I realised was that a lot of times, people tend to focus on what the negatives are from a tournament or an experience but what I realised is that sometimes, we just really need to look at what’s working, what’s positive, and make sure we work on making that an even bigger advantage the next time.
So what would you say has been clicking for you? What do you think is your strength?
My starts are really good. As I was swimming through the meet, I started swimming and feeling better. So that’s an indication that I need to change the lead-up a little but I was able to maintain the consistency regardless of how many races I was swimming and how tired my body was.
You also spoke about how you almost planned everything before Birmingham. So could you just walk us through what your training was like?
So we had kind of like an entire year of prep after the Olympics. We had an entire process of cutting down volume, increasing intensity and sharpening basically so we get ready to peak. The training was much more intense than I have ever trained. For me, this year was the first time swimming so many tournaments at a high level in Europe, getting the exposure, getting the experience racing with some of the best swimmers in the world, racing with people who are going to be racing in the CWG. So I got to experience that, which is something new. And that, in a way, is training and preparation on its own.
Let’s talk about what what it’s like inside the water, what’s in your mind? What do you tell yourself when the odds are stacked against you and you have to push harder?
The first thing is I tell myself is if anyone’s gonna get anything done, it’s me. Because I go into training every day with the mindset that I will not be out-swum. And secondly, I try to look at the sport as a whole and work on every aspect of myself and get better as much as possible and so I don’t like to be outworked. I enjoy the training and I really enjoy being in that state. And so for me, going into a race I’m usually very confident because I rely on the training that I’ve done. I tell myself that I’ve done so much already, there’s just two more laps in the race and if anyone can get it done, it’s me. I tell myself ‘Nobody’s gonna outswim me, nobody’s gonna outwork me’ and that’s in training. And going into the race, I just rely on the work that I’ve done and I’m very confident about that.
When you decided to pursue swimming as a kid, wasn’t it a risk considering the sport isn’t as big in India. Could you tell us what led to making that decision?
It actually wasn’t my choice. Believe it or not, I was two years old and my mom just threw me to the pool. (Laughs) I mean, they didn’t literally throw me into the pool but you know... I was put into swimming at a very young age. My mom used to take my brother to swimming when I was young and I was very mischievous. So she thought if I join the batch, I will get tired and fall asleep. And so that’s pretty much how it started. But yeah, it was a risk in a way because we haven’t seen the sport at a very high level. And, yeah, even the returns from it, you don’t get what you would get from cricket or badminton for example. It’s something I started just as an activity and it grew into something I enjoy doing. After a point I realised that ‘Okay, there is something I could do for it, inside the pool. And sometimes, you think what is life without this?’
Do you notice a change in perception since then?
We’re seeing a lot of media support, media reach, and also, the government and the Federation, they’ve been doing a lot, they have been supporting us a lot as well. A lot of private organisations stepping in, give incentives and things like that. So it is definitely growing and changing. And I think a CWG medal would really change all of that, but it is going to change soon in the future.
So did you need inspiration or an extra push at some point?
I had a lot of a lot of support from my family growing up. So I didn’t really think too much about this. Regardless of the level I am at, I just enjoy spending those four-five hours in the pool every day. I enjoy going to tournaments and racing. I mean, sport is a part of my life and I come from a family of athletes and so it’s been a part of my life for 19 years. So regardless of how it could be and what level I am at, it’s still been something I would have continued doing. I don’t think the resources or incentives are an issue because even now, I don’t really think too much about it. Like I made it to the finals in the CWG, but it’s not like I am getting anything for it. I would get a lot for it if I came back with a medal but I mean, I have personal goals that I set for myself and I’m doing this also to satisfy myself and to feel like I can fulfil my purpose in a way.
You mentioned in another interview, that the pool is kind of a solace for you after your father’s death. So, is swimming still cathartic?
I feel it always has been (cathartic) because even when I was younger, there was a time when my parents had to stop me from swimming for a while. And it went to a point where I would refuse to study, I would refuse to go to school, I would refuse to take notes... the school principal there was an international table tennis player and so she realised how important sport was to me. She suggested that I need to resume swimming at some level. I’d just swim everyday in the school pool just to find that peace.
And yeah, I mean, even on a bad day I always feel good when I get to the pool. I was once sick during the state meet last year and I was running a 101 fever. I got ready and went to the pool, regardless of whether I was gonna race or not. I didn’t even tell my coach or mom that I had a temperature. I just packed my bag, had breakfast and just went to the pool. I knew I was sick, I knew I needed medication but if I’d just been around the pool, just be able to watch the races and maybe just get in and get my warm up, that would help me a bit. My coach said no and sent me back home.
I just feel like it’s like my happy place. It doesn’t feel like that when I am training (laughs) because it’s like my pain place because of how intense it is but it’s nice, the feeling of being immortal is so natural.