Bengaluru swimmer's Olympic A cut gets FINA nod

Bengaluru swimmer's Olympic A cut gets FINA nod

Chokshi confirmed that his name was in the FINA list, the official letter will only arrive after Thursday

Indian swimmer Srihari Nataraj during the finals of the men's 200 metre backstroke competition during the 18th Asian Games 2018, in Jakarta. Credit: PTI File Photo

On Friday, Srihari Nataraj achingly missed the Olympic Qualification Time (A cut) in 100m backstroke by 0.05 seconds. Yes, at the moment he was still heading for the Tokyo Olympics via Universality quota but Nataraj had repeatedly said he wanted that A cut. That had been the Bengaluru swimmer's focus over the past two years. 

A day later, when Sajan Prakash became the first Indian to breach the A cut and rubber-stamped his name on the ticket to Tokyo, the onus fell back on Nataraj. The Universality quota was now invalid, but nothing really changed for him. As the weekend came to a close, he too breached the A cut with a time of 53.77 in a time trial and for the first time, India had two swimmers who breached the A cut.

After the high of that performance, all he could do was wait until FINA, the international body, ratified the time and confirmed his place for the Olympics.

"I was very anxious but I was well distracted because we went around sightseeing in Rome, I enjoy Roman history a lot. I think that distracted me for a couple of days," said Nataraj on Wednesday. He visited the Colosseum and St Peter's square. Tossed a coin over his shoulders into the Trevi Fountain, as is custom. 

"(I was told about the Olympics) a while after I landed in Bengaluru (today) by Nihar (Ameen) sir and Monal (Chokshi, SFI secretary) sir. It was anxiety and a big relief when I found out today. It happened little later than expected but in the end we got it done. I came home to home-made laddos, so that is a good sign," he laughs.

Chokshi confirmed that his name was in the FINA list, the official letter will only arrive after Thursday.

This was possibly one of the most complicated and difficult Olympic qualification period for any athlete. Travel restrictions, multiple lockdowns and the general fear of the Covid-19 virus does not lend itself for a conducive atmosphere. And it hurt Indian swimmers perhaps more than any others, for it was the sport that restarted last after the first lockdown last year. For Nataraj, there was a personal tragedy as well.

The start stop campaign meant that Nataraj and Sajan left it late, to the last meet in fact, before making the cut. The two swimmers, friends first, clearly pushed each other.

"I am very happy that Sajan did it. He proved that even at that age and the injuries he went through, it was possible. That was a motivation that I can do it too," said Nataraj.

"The strategy in the trials was a bit different from the main race. On the trail day I wasn't feeling the best. I was still feeling tired and my legs weren't fresh. This is probably an example where the body achieves what the mind believes," he said.

Generally, it's the race that brings the best out of the swimmers - the push of catching up to another to holding someone off. Here, he swam alone with no reference. But the learnings from the first swim helped.

"I knew going in that my comeback speed was more than my opening speed. I knew exactly what to focus on, making sure I do the things that I am in control of, as perfect as possible - like have a good breakout, use that momentum of the wall, nail that turn and make sure the last 15m I don't drop," said the 20-year-old.

Now, the focus is firmly on Olympics. The plan at the moment is to train in Bengaluru.

"In Tokyo, the main goal is to get a better time. Based on past history and if I can drop a bit, I see myself making the semifinals so that is the goal," he said.

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