CHENNAI: When FINA, the world governing body of swimming, published the final qualification guidelines for the 2020 Olympics on March 1, Srihari Nataraj just gave it a passing look. He was in the middle of something equally important; preparing for his XII board exams.
The 18-year-old, who won seven gold medals at the Khelo India Games in January, is one of the country’s best upcoming swimmers and there is an expectation that he could be the first Indian swimmer to go to the Olympics not under the ‘Universality rule’ but by achieving an ‘A’ qualifying time. Considering nobody has managed it in recent memory, that’s a tall ask.
But Nataraj, who took part in last year’s Youth Olympics at Buenos Aires, believes he can do it. “I know I have it within me to get a ‘B’ qualifying time. But I am personally looking to get into Tokyo through an ‘A’ time,” he told this newspaper. It’s easier said than done because the qualifying guideline is very strict this time. To get a berth into the 100m or 200m backstroke — Nataraj’s pet events — he has to clock 53:85 seconds and 1:57.50 seconds, respectively, between March 1, 2019 and June 29, 2020.
Nataraj’s challenge is to first breach the ‘B’ mark. His best in 100m backstroke is 55:86. The corresponding time in the 200m is 2:02.37. Both are national records, but there is a gap of 0.39 seconds and 1.35 seconds with ‘B’ standards.
Having already worked on his take-off and pushing off the wall the last few months, he has zeroed in on a new area. “My underwater speed is a weakness and I have been working on it extensively. In the past, I have also been a bit shy and trying to save up my energy a bit. Now I think I will just give it all from the get go.” The Karnataka lad is of the opinion if he puts all this into practice in a competitive environment, he can shave off 2.5 seconds from his best in 100m backstroke and close to 5 seconds in the longer race. If he can do that, he will qualify with ‘A’ times over both distances.
Sajan Prakash faces a different problem. The 25-year-old, who went to Rio on a Universality place (tickets given by FINA to countries who have no athletes with an ‘A’ timing), is a much improved swimmer. That he swims inside the ‘B’ time in both the 100m and 200m butterfly — his priority events — is an indication of how much he has improved. But to meet the ‘A’ time is the big challenge. “I am inside the B timings, so I am very confident of at least meeting those in the next one year,” he said. He is quietly optimistic of bettering his personal best by 1.5 seconds in both disciplines. “I need to be better 1.5 seconds in both to get an ‘A’ time. I think I can do it.”
For both, the first major test will be the World Championships in July.