A pool isn’t just a pool; water isn’t just water, if you are a backstroker swimming in Serbia. For sometimes, staring up, a stadium roof can block the blue sky. Twenty-year-old Srihari Nataraj became the second Indian to secure a Tokyo Olympics direct qualification last weekend, with an ‘A’ cut of 53.77 seconds in a time trial at Rome. But that was after nearly falling short by the tiniest of margins – once after being unsettled by the quirky design of the roof of the stadium in Belgrade.
Needing to dip under 53.85 seconds over the 100m to secure automatic qualification through the ‘A’ standard last fortnight, Srihari had two meets to meet the target time. The Indian team would land at the Belgrade competition venue, an indoor pool with a funky roof – something backstrokers tend to be acutely conscious of, since they stare at the roof for most part when racing.
“It wasn’t just me, but many Serb swimmers too found it a bit unsettling,” he describes the race where he clocked a “not-as- fast-as-expected” 54.45 seconds over the two laps.
“It was a curvy roof with diagonal tiny lines every 5 metres. Basically, it was the separation of the tiles. But for a backstroker, the roof is the only guide to swim straight. So, with a design like that you can be disoriented,” the Bangalorean recalls.
Swimming pools aren’t just water kept sparkling steady in an arena. Other factors come into play in the form of pool conditions: amount of chemicals, density of water and buoyancy of the pool as well as weather changes. “I knew I was swimming fast in Serbia, and I’m in the best shape of my life, so I was looking forward to Rome,” he says.
While he settled into competitive mode in Belgrade, picking the gold medal minus the ‘A’ cut, he would travel 1,279 km looping the Adriatic Sea to reach his dream venue – Rome, hoping to slash precious baby-seconds and make the grade.
“Rome is a fantastic pool, they hosted the 2009 World Championships. So I just knew I’d be fast,” he says. Lobbed into a slow heat though, Srihari would ratchet up his performance to 53.90 – within 0.05 seconds of the elusive ‘A’.
While the youngster had been nominated for the Universality quota (every country can send two swimmers – one male and female), Sajan Prakash’s sensational ‘A’ qualification in 200m butterfly meant Srihari would need to book a Tokyo spot the hard way. “Being in a slow heat wasn’t in my control. I didn’t change much in terms of strategy and accepted the result and we requested for a time trial,” he says.
Srihari compares a time trial and a real-time race to drag-racing when driving. “It’s as different as having someone next to you on the road and going at a comfortable pace. When it’s neck-to-neck, you find that extra gear and split second which you wouldn’t if you were swimming alone,” he explains.
“You don’t think of pain or how you’re hurting. You are too caught up in catching up with the leader.” Having fallen short by a whisker, Srihari would wait for his chance to race against time. Coach Nihar Amin, trainer Bala and the swimmer would go out for a pizza that evening before chomping at another chance to qualify. Amin’s biggest worry had been about how to rev up his swimmer to go it alone in the pool. “I saw it as just another race, did my carb loading, chugged water and stuck to the plan,” Srihari says.
But plans don’t always stick. So, while aiming to go 0.1 second faster in the first 50m, he would drop 0.1s slower instead. It was on the back 50m that he would up the pace and go 0.3 seconds faster than planned, to go within the required time, at 53.77s.
The pandemic has been a rough time for him. “I lost my Dad this January. He did everything I needed for my swimming. There was also the injury from October – a strain because I did too much load too soon after we were permitted to swim after months of dry training,” he says.
He would celebrate the ‘A’ with Indian food, and then go shopping at his candy-store of swimming paraphernalia. So, does he see India finally making the ‘A’ mark as a giant splash for India? “I’m 20 years old now. Michael Phelps had some six Olympic medals before he turned 19. So, yes, sure, it’s a step forward and I’m happy. But you can’t sit thinking this is a big achievement.” Many roofs to conquer still.