Interview with Srihari Nataraj – ‘The swimming pool is like my happy place’

Considered one of India’s greatest swimmers of all time, Srihari Nataraj reached the men’s 100m and 50m backstroke finals at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, produce a full performance it was arguably the best by an Indian not to finish on the podium.

In his first major event since the Tokyo Olympics, the 21-year-old didn’t come home with a medal from Birmingham, but in arguably the CWG’s toughest sport, he reached the final not in a but in two events. And in the third, came with better national timing.

His fifth place finish in the men’s 50 backstroke put him within touching distance of a medal. Additionally, with 54.31 seconds in the men’s 100 backstroke final, he finished seventh. He clocked 2:00.84s in the heats of the 200m backstroke to once again secure the fastest time ever by an Indian, and narrowly miss out on a place in the final.

While his performances are certainly worth applauding in the context of Indian swimming, the Tokyo Olympian laments a missed opportunity. His personal record 53.77 at the 58th International “Settecolli” Trophy in 2021, which is a national record, was better than the timing that won the 100m backstroke final. The bronze went to a time of 54.06 seconds, while Srihari finished with 54.31 seconds. “It will sting to know that my personal best in the 100m backstroke would have earned me a gold medal,” he posted on Instagram.

And so, while aware that achievements are to be savored, Srihari is also left with a rather bittersweet feeling.

He just conveyed the sense of expectation he has of himself.

Here are excerpts from his conversation with Scroll.in where he talked about his performance in Birmingham, his debut at stp

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’s good to hear that. But the whole objective before the Games was to come back with a victory. And the fact that my personal best (53.77 in the 100m backstroke) could have won a medal doesn’t make that great news, but it is what it is. I’m happy to have been able to do that and it’s good to be in this position but throughout the Games, the objective was to come back with a medal.

What do you think was your biggest learning at Birmingham?

I always try to hold something in, not just every time I run, but every time I swim. There is always something you can learn and something you can fix. So, I don’t think I found a fit or anything hugely specific, but what I learned was understanding how the sport actually works. That there comes a time when sometimes it’s just not your day. And at the Commonwealth Games it was one of those days, like the 100m backstroke final was one of those days. It just wasn’t my day. Sometimes you can plan everything completely… like I planned everything, we did everything as planned, we trained very well, we did the preparation, we did the final details and I arrived at the race and I tried extremely hard. I had nothing left after the race, but that just didn’t happen.

Could you realize it wasn’t your day almost instantly?

No, it was a process because I couldn’t understand it. I was shocked in a nihilistic way. That wasn’t the reason I wasn’t able to swim as fast as I had swum before. So it took a while, but I had several races in a row and it could have been a problem if I was hanging on for days. Another thing I’ve realized is that often people tend to focus on the negative aspects of a tournament or an experience, but what I’ve realized is that sometimes, we really need to look at what works, what’s positive, and make sure we’re working to make it an even bigger benefit next time.

So what clicked for you? What do you think is your strength?

My beginnings are really good. As I was swimming during the competition, I started swimming and felt better. So that’s an indication that I need to change the preparation a bit, but I was able to maintain consistency no matter how many races I did and how tired my body was.

You also talked about how you planned almost everything before Birmingham. Could you explain to us what your training was like?

So we had kind of a whole year of preparation after the Olympics. We had a whole process of reducing the volume, increasing the intensity and sharpening in order to prepare for the peak. The training was much more intense than I have ever trained. For me, this year was the first time that I had swum so many high-level tournaments in Europe, that I had made myself known, that I had the experience of running with some of the best swimmers in the world, of running with people who were going to run in the CWG. So I was able to experience that, which is something new. And that, in a way, is training and preparation in itself.

Let’s talk about what it is inside the water, what’s inside your mind? What do you tell yourself when the odds are stacked against you and you need to push harder?

The first thing I tell myself is that if anyone can do anything, it’s me. Because I go to training every day with the idea that I won’t be swum. And second, I try to look at the sport as a whole and work on every aspect of myself and improve as much as possible and so I don’t like to be overworked. I like training and I really like being in this 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 have already done so much, there are only two laps left and if anyone can do it, it’s me. I say to myself ‘Nobody is going to surpass me in swimming, nobody is going to surpass me’ and it is in training. And before the race, I just rely on the work I’ve done and I’m very confident about it.

When you decided to take up swimming as a kid, wasn’t it a risk given that the sport is not that widespread in India. Could you tell us what led to this decision?

It was actually not my choice. Believe it or not, I was two years old and my mom threw me in the pool. (Laughs) I mean, they didn’t literally throw me in the pool, but you know… I learned to swim at a very young age. My mom used to take my brother swimming when I was young and I was very mischievous. So she thought if I joined the lot, I’d get tired and fall asleep. And that’s pretty much how it started. But yeah, it was a risk in a way because we didn’t see the sport at a very high level. And, yes, even the returns from this one, you don’t get what you would get from cricket or badminton for example. It’s something I started as an activity and it’s become something I love to do. After a while, I realized, ‘Okay, there’s something I could do about that, inside the pool. And sometimes you think what’s life without it?

Have you noticed a change in perception since?

We see a lot of media support, media reach, and also, the government and the Federation, they have done a lot, they have supported us a lot too. A lot of private organizations are stepping in, giving incentives and things like that. So he’s definitely growing and changing. And I think a CWG medal would really change all that, but that’s going to change soon in the future.

Did you ever need inspiration or an extra boost?

I had a lot of support from my family growing up. So I didn’t give it too much thought. Whatever my level, I love spending those four to five hours in the pool every day. I like to go to tournaments and races. I mean, sport is part of my life and I come from a family of athletes and so it’s been part of my life for 19 years. So no matter how it might be and what level I’m at, it’s always something I would have continued to do. I don’t think resources or incentives are an issue because even now I don’t think about it too much. Like I made it to the CWG Finals, but it’s not like I got anything for it. I would get a lot out of it if I came back with a medal, but I mean, I have personal goals that I set for myself and I also do it to satisfy myself and to feel like I can fulfill my goal in some way.

You mentioned in another interview, that the swimming pool is a kind of comfort for you after the death of your father. So, is swimming always cathartic?

I feel like it’s always 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 got to the point where I refused to study, I refused to go to school, I refused to take notes… the headmistress of the school was an international table tennis player and she realized how important sport was to me. She suggested that I should resume swimming at some level. I was just swimming in the school pool every day just to find that peace.

And yes, I mean, even on bad days, I always feel good when I get to the pool. I got sick once at the state reunion last year and had a fever of 101. I got ready and went to the pool whether I was going for a run or not. I didn’t even tell my trainer or my 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 meds, but if I was just around the pool, could just watch the races and maybe just get in and warm up, that would bother me. would help a bit. My coach said no and sent me home.

I just feel like it’s like my happy place. I don’t feel like that when I train (laughs) because it’s like my place of pain because of how intense it is but it’s nice, the feeling of being immortal is so natural.