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India at CWG 2022: Confident Srihari Nataraj eyes history-making swimming medal-Sports News , Firstpost

Having made rapid strides in the last year, 21-year-old swimmer Srihari Nataraj is now looking to make history at the Commonwealth Games 2022.

Swimmer Srihari Nataraj could win a medal in 100m backstroke event if he manages to touch his personal best timing. Image: Srihari Nataraj Instagram

While there have been sports where India have medalled abundantly at the Commonwealth Games (CWG), swimming hasn’t been part of this privileged group, with the nation never winning a medal in able-bodied swimming at the CWG.

The nation’s only swimming medal came in the 2010 edition at home in New Delhi when para swimmer Prasanta Karmakar clinched the bronze in the 50m freestyle bronze event. Swimming as a sport has struggled for popularity in India, however, there has been a growing uptick on two of the most important fronts — performances in the pool and conversations around the sport.

At the forefront of this rapid rise is Bengaluru’s Srihari Nataraj. The 21-year-old swimmer last year became only the second Indian to gain direct qualification to the Olympics after Sajan Prakash and also holds the national records in 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events. He has rewritten the national records multiple times in the last few years and undeterred by the burden of history and expectations, and has only one aim going into the Birmingham Games 2022 — to win a medal and make history.

Nataraj has qualified for the 100m backstroke event at the Games and will also be taking part in the 50m and 200m backstroke events.

“Based on how I have been performing and swimming over the last couple of years, I am going for a medal,” Nataraj tells Firstpost from England. “There’s no reason why I should not be medalling. In terms of the start, I am better than many. I have good strokes. In terms of preparations, everything has been going really well and this is the best I have been swimming. So, I am going for a medal.”

Nataraj recently won gold in 50m and 100m backstroke events of the Singapore National Swimming Championships 2022. Since the turn of the year, he has competed in France, Monte Carlo and Singapore and believes that those competitive outings would help his case at the Games.

“It’s been a great experience going around in these swimming competitions. I actually go to compete against a lot of swimmers who are going to participate in the Games, so it gave me an idea of areas where I am good and also highlighted what I am lacking,” he tells.

“I need to work on those areas but it’s not just that, I also need to improve upon areas where I am good. When it comes to going for the race, I have always believed in my abilities and that’s what it’s going to be at games.”

Nataraj though has not managed to touch his personal best (PB) this year and will need to peak at the right time to have a medal chance. His PB in 100m backstroke is 53.77 seconds, a timing that sent him to Tokyo Games. In 50m he holds the national record at 25.18 and in 200m at 02:01.70.

At the 2018 CWG, Australia’s Mitch Larkin swept the finals of men’s 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events with timings of 24.68, 53.18 and 1:56.10 respectively. The bronze in the three events went at 25.06, 54.14 and 1:57.04.

The competition is tough, but to be fair, Natraj has also shaved off a lot of seconds. At the 2018 Games, a 17-year-old Nataraj timed 56.65 in the 100m backstroke event. Now he is almost three seconds faster. If he hits his peak, there could be a medal possibility.

“Mentally I am up for the challenge. I am up for the game. When it’s time to step on the blocks and race, I have always been up for it. I am feeling really confident. I am not saying this because I am being hopeful. The way I have been training and performing, everything is pointing in the right direction,” he adds.

“Definitely, there’s a lot of experience now. Last Games was my first major competition, but now I have participated in big events. Mentally and physically I am in a much better position than four years ago.”

Currently, Natraj, who is in Manchester, is tapering down — a practice of reducing swimming volume and intensity ahead of a major event — to recover well and generate muscle strength before the Games.

“This is the first time I am tapering since the Olympics. In the last year, I have been training and enhancing my performance. We had a very good lead-up season…I have been tapering to freshen up and give the muscles enough recovery time so they have the strength when I actually have to peak,” Nataraj informs.

“It has been going well. I have been tapering since a week after I came back from Singapore. It’s been close to three weeks of tapering for me. I am mostly now working on polishing off the strokes because most of the work has been done. There’s nothing that you can change or build a few days before the Games. It’s just about getting fresh, fine-tuning my swimming and preparing so that I don’t make any mistakes in the race,” he concludes.

Apart from Nataraj, veteran Sajan will be taking part in 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly events, Kushagra Rawat will compete in  200m, 400m and 1500m freestyle events and Advait Page in 1500m freestyle event.

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