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Swimming: After his father’s death last year, CWG finalist Srihari Natraj finds rest in the pool

Srihari Nataraja was training in the pool at the National Camp in Bangalore when he received the news of his father’s demise in January last year. The Bangalore-based swimmer covered a distance of 23 km from the Padukone-Dravid Center for Excellence to his home in Malleswaram to be with his family.

Two days later, however, he was back in the pool. Swimming was his way of dealing with one of the biggest setbacks of his life. “It helped me, gave me something else to put my energy into,” he had said.

He returned with a vengeance, clocking times that have been faster and breaking barriers, as far as Indian swimming is concerned. Weeks after his father’s death, Nataraj became the first Indian to achieve the ‘A’ standard qualification for the Olympics.

And, on Friday at the Commonwealth Games, her first major event since the Tokyo Games, the 21-year-old qualified for the final of the 100m backstroke at the Sandwell Aquatics Center in Birmingham.

Nataraj locked 54:55 seconds in the semifinals on Friday night. It was good enough for him to secure fourth place in his race and seventh overall, out of the 16 who competed across the two semifinals. His final will take place on Saturday night in Birmingham, at approximately 1.15am India time on Sunday.

Given India’s abysmal record in CWG swimming – the country’s only medal came in Para-Swimming at the Delhi CWG when Prasanta Karmakar won the bronze – Nataraj’s feat assumes huge significance. It’ll be his maiden CWG final, after being unable to do so in Gold Coast four years ago, where his senior teammate Sajan Prakash made the cut for in 200m butterfly final and finished eighth.

It’s hardly surprising that Nataraj, considered to be one of India’s finest swimmers, finds himself in this position. Introduced to swimming by his parents at the age of two, he has won more than 100 medals across junior and senior national championships as well as Khelo India events since 2010, when he first started competing.

In fact, since 2016, Nataraj has won 27 gold, seven silver and four bronze medals at senior national championships, putting his head and shoulders above the rest. Add to this, he has already represented the country at all major multi-discipline events, has rewritten national records a dozen times and continues to take Indian swimming to levels it hadn’t reached before.

Nataraj will compete in lane one, which is viewed as one of the slowest lanes along with lane 8, as the swimmers have to deal with waves coming from other lanes as well as the water bouncing back at them from the pool walls.

This minor shortcoming will only increase their challenges of finishing on the podium. CWG swimming is often of very high quality, as was evident on the first day of competition on Friday.

South Africa’s Pieter Coetze was the fastest swimmer across both the semifinals, clocking 53.67 seconds. All other swimmers had timings of 54 seconds or beyond. While it is expected that they’ll all up the speed in the final, Nataraj will smell an opportunity, given that he has a personal best timing of 53.77 seconds. If successful, it’ll add to the list of many firsts in Indian swimming that Nataraj has already achieved.

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