Srihari Nataraj was just seven when India's individual Olympic gold medal count went from zero to one in Beijing in 2008. The 18 year-old backstroke swimmer is now chasing a spot at next year's Games in Tokyo. In a sport dominated by torpedo-like built Americans and Australians, India's struggles begin right from the road to qualification. In the previous two Games, since no Indian swimmer touched the 'A' qualifying mark, participation came through Universality place (Provision for national federations with unqualified athletes to nominate one male and one female swimmer each for the Games).
It's an embarrassment the Swimming Federation (SFI) is hoping to avoid this time. It falls in line then that Bengaluru will play host to the 10th Asian Age Group Championship, an Olympic qualifying event, which will feature over 1200 swimmers from around 40 countries, through September 24-October 2.
Competitions will be held in four disciplines - swimming, water polo, artistic swimming and diving - across three venues in the southern Indian city. In the previous edition of the biennial competition in Uzbekistan, India had finished with 40 medals in swimming - five gold, 13 silver and 22 bronze apart from three gold, two silver and three bronze in diving.
Srihari is excited at the rare prospect of 'home advantage'. It would mean competing without jet lag, weather surprises or having to hunt for his lunch staples - rice, dal and potatoes in foreign countries. At the Asian Games last year, Srihari broke three national records and made the final in two events. He is talked of as one of the brightest Indian talents in the pool. He also broke two national records (in the 50m & 200m backstroke events) at the recent World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea but was short of the Olympic Selection Time (OST) or 'B' time ('B' time is easier to achieve than the Olympic Qualifying Time (OQT) or 'A' time.
The latter guarantees direct Olympic entry while athletes with 'B' time have to wait till the end of the qualification period, after which the apex swimming body, FINA, will distribute OST places by event according to world ranking as on 29 June 2020. Three Indian swimmers have made the 'B' time so far - Sajan Prakash (200m butterfly), Advait Page (1500m freestyle) and Kushagra Rawat (800m freestyle).
The 'A' cut-off for 100m and 200m backstroke events are set at 53.85 and 1:57.50, while Srihari's personal bests in them stand a fair distance away at 55.49 and 2:02.08 respectively. The 'B' grades are closer: 55.47 and 2:01.03. But Srihari, who will be racing at the World Junior Championship in Budapest later this month, isn't thinking about the 'B' time. "I didn't hit the time I expected at the World Championships," he says, "I felt faster than the time shown and I'm pretty sure I can go faster than what I did. The 'A' time is gettable if I work hard enough."
The good thing is he knows how he can get there. "My swim is looking good, I just need to make sure that I make good turns and kicks off each wall and need to go faster for the first 100m in the 200m. Similarly, if I go faster in the first 50m, I'm definitely going to finish faster in the second 50m. I need to practice it in training and then definitely try it at one of competitions ahead."
In the backstroke event, swimmers keep their legs close together and kick from the hips and as they get closer to the wall, they need to make a turn - rotate their body on to the front, perform a forward somersault underwater and plant their feet on the wall with knees open.
Srihari's problem has been one of running out of oxygen when he's on his back while doing the flip and underwater. "It's why I'm working on improving my lung capacity and getting a better push of the wall and a better glide, so that I can go a metre off each wall and hopefully drop a second or second and a half."
He also needs to fight the fear of fading out early. At the World Championships, he tapped into some inspiration watching 17-year-old American Regan Smith dropping almost three seconds from her own junior world record to breach the world record in the women's 200m backstroke set by Missy Franklin in 2012.
"Her first 100m was .2 faster than mine and her 150m was .9 faster than mine. It takes a lot of guts. She did fade away in the last 50m but she didn't let that worry her. In the 100m, I have the speed, I just need to mentally convince myself that I have to open faster and turn it into a habit." He has the math worked out - flip for 26.2 in the first 50m and come back for 27.5 to finish with 53.7 for an 'A' time. "Right now, my last 50m time is 28.1," Srihari says, "so dropping .5 in that stretch is going to be harder than opening with 26.2."
In all of this, he's also fighting systemic odds - lack of enough competitions in the country and financial support. He hasn't heard about funds so far this year from the Target Olympic Podium (TOP), in which he's a part of the developmental group of athletes. Also, for years together, the National Championships (senior and junior) have been all that the SFI calendar offers. A recent addition has been the All India inter-club swimming competition. Three editions have been held so far, the last one having taken place in October, 2018 in Sonepat.
"We need more races in India," he says, "No amount of training can replace competitions. So that's a fair bit of disadvantage right now."