Srihari Nataraj shows class with twin gold in swimming pool

Srihari Nataraj’s maturity came to the fore as he dealt with pressure of expectation admirably, first by rewriting his own 100m backstroke National record and then by anchoring Karnataka to the 4x100m freestyle gold to lend the swimming competition in the inaugural Khelo India School Games a magical touch. 

“I was aiming for a 56.50 finish since I am preparing for the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires (Argentina),” he said after clocking 56.90 seconds in the 100m backstroke to improve on his own National record of 56.99 which he clocked in Tashkent last year. “I had to modify my dive since the pads are a bit slippery. I was pleased that I got a fast 50m with a good dive.”

The six-footer wore the look of a winner from the time he entered the arena to the time he got off the water, having touched home in 56.90 seconds despite having nursed some apprehensions about the feel in the pool. A little over two months ago, competing in the U-19 category, he won the SGFI 100m backstroke crown in 58.09 seconds. “I had to get my finish right, too,” he said.

With swimming legends Khajan Singh and Bula Chaudhary and his own coach Jayarajan AC watching from the sidelines, he churned the pool with purpose, unmindful of the fact that he had opened a comfortable lead before taking the turn inside 28 seconds. “This lad has that something special,” gushed Khajan Singh, 200m butterfly silver medal winner in the 1986 Asian Games.

He had warmed up in the morning with a 59.26-second effort in the heats. That none of the others had come home inside a minute did not seem to affect his determination to chase the National record down. There was no hint of complacency that he brooked no competition. Nor was there any overt desire to conserve his energy for the races ahead.

“I chose to take the risk of going all out from the finish but over the last 25m my legs got tired because of the lactic and then I used more power from the arms,” he said. As someone who started swimming when he was barely two years old and has already spent a lifetime in the pool, he said the thought of going easy never cross his mind. “It is a race against the clock and wanted my best.”

He did not ease up even when his stomach cramped a bit during the relay and that’s when his versatility came to the fore as he powered Karnataka to a fine victory. With a blitz of 52.37 seconds, the fastest leg tonight, he ensured that he would keep Tamil Nadu’s P Vikas (54.80 seconds) at bay and take his team home ahead by a mere 0.83 seconds. He seemed unperturbed when waiting for his turn to dive into the pool in second place.

Indeed, few teenagers speak with such clarity of thought and as lucidly. But Srihari Nataraj is not the sort who rests on his own oars and pushes towards evolution as a champion swimmer.