Two Indian swimmers making it to the Olympics with ‘A’ cut timings (Olympic Qualifying Time) has never happened ever before. Sajan Prakash made it in 200m butterfly with 1:56.38 (OQT 1:56.48s) while Srihari Nataraj qualified in his pet event, 100m backstroke with 53.77s (OQT 53.85s).
Though, both of them made it in different circumstances in Rome during the last weekend of June. While Prakash achieved it in the Sette Colli Trophy competition heats on June 26, Nataraj did it in the time trial the next day after missing the ‘A’ cut by 0.05s, having done 53.90s on Day 1 of the meet on June 25.
“It is a dream-come-true,” Nataraj told News18.com from his home in Bengaluru. “It is a very good feeling that I can’t really describe it. I’ve been working for this for years. Now coming this close, getting in the last date possible, on the last date of qualifying, a lot of emotions are involved.”
Indeed it was not easy as Nataraj was unsure of going to the Olympics and did all that he could to collect maximum FINA points and be eligible, albeit the Universality Quota. However, a request from the Swimming Federation of India to FINA for a time trial was accepted by the Sette Colli organisers in Rome.
Nataraj described the emotions involved in doing the time trial all alone in an empty swimming pool. “It was a now or never situation. It was also in a trial. I was not sure if it was going to be taken. I had to swim it alone. I had to just focus and ensure that I handled it properly.”
He said it did make a difference swimming in a race with competitors on either side of him to push him to go faster or doing it all alone with none to judge you how you are pacing the swim.
“In a race with someone as fast as you or faster, you don’t feel the pain. It helps you push a little bit more. Swimming all alone does have some positives as you focus on yourself. If the pain is not going to be an issue, you make sure you get the timings right,” India’s fastest backstroker said.
Nataraj did his time trial a day after India had its first ever swimmer, Prakash, make the ‘A’ cut in 200m butterfly. Nataraj said Prakash is an inspiration to him. “In India, ‘A’ cut was something nobody has got before. Not many even thought about it. It is time that we changed the way we think. We have the potential to do that. We just need to realise what it is going to take. It is not easy. It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of focus. Sajan at 27 years topping the ‘A’ time shows how much discipline he has. He is so fit, so strong. He made me realise that it is not just the workouts alone.”
The World Record in 100m backstroke is 51.85s by American Ryan Murphy set in the Rio Games 2016. While Nataraj may not make it to the finals in Tokyo, realistically speaking, he expects to swim faster than 53.85s and qualify for the semifinals at least. “I just want to swim faster. Based on how it is going now, I see myself in the semifinals and then take it from there. It is not going to be easy. I have three weeks for the Olympics. If I had six or seven weeks in hand, I would have done 53.1s or 53.2s. We have to work with what we have,” he said.
Nataraj’s coach, India’s first Dronacharya award winner in swimming in 2015, Nihar Ameen said Nataraj went through a lot of difficulties during the lockdown and attributed the 20-year-old Bengaluru swimmer’s qualification to his peaking at the right time in the second half of June.
Ameen told News18.com from Spain en route to India: “We went through a lot of difficulties because of the lockdown. The training camp we had in Serbia (Belgrade Trophy the week previous to the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome) was very good for all of us with very good conditions. Since I knew Sette Colli had to be the peaking meet, we didn’t taper for that meet. He had clocked 54.07s in the Uzbekistan Open in April and that was the time the Swimming Federation entered for the Rome meet.
At the last minute, when we got the heat sheet, he was put in a much slower heats. FINA had expunged the Uzbek meet results for whatever reasons. Although we tried to move him to a proper heat of his calibre, he was in slow heat and he was disappointed with that. He missed by 0.05s. We requested a time trial.”
Ameen said that there was nothing unusual in national federations asking for time trials. “It happened in the US trials (Jake Mitchell in 400m freestyle) and South African trials (Kaylene Corbett in 200m breaststroke). The SFI in particular moved heaven and earth with FINA to see this come through.”
Ameen said that it did make a difference between swimming in slow heats, time trials and a regular race and clarified that the times vary accordingly, though it is up to the individual doing the same routines of jumping in the pool, doing the flips and turns and racing.
Ameen said: “In slow heats, you don’t know what you are doing. Even in the previous meet, he was doing it alone, the next swimmer was three seconds slower. Rome was do-or-die. He knows he should have been there in the first place as he is one of the world’s best backstrokers in the world for his age. Swimming all alone, he did a fantastic time. Nobody to pace him, nobody to race. It was all by his mental strength. He did an excellent swim.”
Ameen has known Nataraj for a long time. Nataraj went to Ameen at Bengaluru KC Reddy Swim Centre when he started before moving out for a brief while. It was in November last year that Nataraj went back to Ameen at the Dolphin Aquatics in Padukone Dravid Centre for Excellence.
“From Day 1, Srihari has been with me. For a short period, he was away for reasons rather not discussed. When he found out this was the best option, he moved straight back. Things are magic now. It is a combination of his supreme talent as an athlete and my understanding of how to deal with an athlete of his calibre. That’s how it works,” Ameen said.
On his part, Nataraj said: “I have worked with Nihar sir since I was a baby at KCR. He has so much experience, has a complete base of knowledge, facilities and sports science. It is just the tiny difference from silver to gold or no medal to a medal in Asian Games.”
Executive director of Swimming Federation of India and now a member of the world governing body FINA Bureau, Virendra Nanavati, said Prakash and Nataraj making the ‘A’ cut “is a big achievement for Indian swimming”.
He told this website from Ahmedabad: “We have been struggling for years. The highest number of swimmers from India was four in 2008 (Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal, Ankur Poseria and Rehan Poncha) when I was SFI secretary. Otherwise, it has been one male and one female on Universality Quota or through the mercy of FINA. But continuous efforts of the federation and the swimmers have got good results.”
Nanavati, who is also a vice-president of Indian Olympic Association and vice-chairman of the FINA technical swimming committee, said that Prakash and Nataraj making the ‘A’ cut augurs well for Indian swimming in next year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou, China.
He said: “This will help us get better results in Asian Games. We can expect a few medals in the Asian Games. They were missing marginally in Asiad. These two swimmers can get at least medals in Asiad. And in Tokyo, we hope Sajan will qualify for the semifinals. Srihari is equally good and with another one more year of training, he will be able to deliver and get medals in Asian Games. He is the hope for India.”
Nanavati said a podium finish in the Olympics is still a long way to go. “The government has not opened a swimming pool for the swimmers. How do you expect medals? Even top swimmers are struggling. How do you expect them to deliver in the Olympics and Asian Games? Everywhere in the world, the pool is open. In foreign countries, the training programme is going round the year. Here, there are no such things. The approach and mentality is not to support as a sport but for recreation for the public. That will never give you the results,” Nanavati said.
Endorsing Nanavati’s point, Nataraj said: “It was frustrating not to have access to the swimming pool during the lockdown. It made a big impact. Not being in the pool for six months made a big difference. Athletes in Rome were shocked when I told them we did not swim for six months. Apparently, none of them were out of the pool for even a month. We lost the time we lost. We can’t get it back. All we needed was to be more efficient and make up some ground which we did quite well.”
About his role in Nataraj’s time trial in Rome, Nanavati said: “When the swimmer and his coach approached us, I told them to approach the organisers and sent them to FINA. And, if the result is positive, we could do something. We have supported and we have managed this with FINA. That has come to Indian favour. We knew that Srihari was doing well. The Italian organisers were kind to us. They arranged the time trial. Otherwise, Srihari would have had to wait for three more years for his Olympics participation.”
While national coach S Pradeep Kumar will accompany the Indian swimmers to Tokyo for sure, Nanavati said he would take up the matter with the IOA to also send Ameen for the Olympics. “We want to send both,” Nanavati said. He himself would be present in Tokyo as the vice-chairman of the FINA technical committee and also a bureau member.
While aware of being the hope for Indian swimming in the time to come, Nataraj said that him making the ‘A’ cut or Prakash making the ‘A’ cut “was no accident”. “We have the talent to get to the international stage. I know how much I have pushed just to drop half a second. It is a pain to drop just half a second. That is what it takes if you have to stay on top.”
Nataraj is certainly one to progress to the top with the right backing and training facilities on par with the top swimmers of the world. Same holds true for Prakash and other top swimmers in the country.