Natrajan's training was disrupted again and again by the COVID-19 enforced lockdown but the ace Indian swimmer Srihari Nataraj remained as cool as a cucumber, confident that he would breach the elusive 'A' standard to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Nataraj wasn't able to enter a swimming pool from mid-March till September when a two-month national camp was arranged in Dubai last year. On returning home, the restrictions were eased out and he resumed training in Bengaluru but whenever there was a spike in COVID-19 cases in the state, the swimming pools became the first casualties.
However, the 20-year-old took it in stride, and on Wednesday he "officially" booked his berth for the Tokyo Games, after FINA, the world body for aquatics, approved his 'A' standard qualification time in the men's 100m backstroke time trial at the Sette Colli Trophy in Rome. "The lockdown did affect a lot, starting earlier could have made a big difference. But there was a reason why it was on and I had no control over that and there's no point in looking back," Nataraj told PTI. "I just kept waiting, trying to keep looking to the future and be patient."
Asked if there were times during the lockdown when he doubted himself, felt he couldn't make the 'A' standard Nataraj's reply was quick: "Not once". But Nataraj, only the second Indian swimmer and youngest to earn a direct Olympic qualification, had to work hard for it. "For me to drop time in the past six months, I know what it has taken. I have never worked out this much."
In his time away from the pool, Nataraj, self-admittedly, enjoyed his time away from the pool. "I was enjoying my freedom too much because I never got a day off before. I didn't completely slack but I put on some weight and lost some muscle. But once I got back into the pool it was a lot different as I started burning calories a lot more with double sessions and things like that."
Ahead of the Uzbekistan Open Championship, Nataraj's first Olympic qualifying event, pools were once again shut in Karnataka but that didn't stop the youngster from smashing the national record twice in a day but the 'A' mark still eluded him. The pools continued to remain shut ahead of two other qualifying events -- Mare Nostrum meet in Monaco, which Srihari had to give a miss and the Sette Colli Trophy. But he chose not to harp on it. "It made no sense to go to a high-level meet (Mare Nostrum) when I haven't been training for two weeks because pools were shut. I just didn't think about it. Even before Rome, we didn't have permission to train, so we left earlier."
New obstacles continued arising in his path. After allegations of tampered timings, FINA invalidated the results from the Uzbekistan Open Swimming Championship, this included Nataraj's best time. The development meant that Nataraj would have to enter an older best time for the Rome meet, one set before the lockdown, which resulted in him being grouped with swimmers in a slower heat and he missed Olympic Qualification Time by a mere 0.05s.
"If I was in a faster heat, not using that as an excuse but that's something that could have made a difference. "It makes a big difference if you are in a slower heat. Because when you are swimming alone you feel the pain but when you are neck to neck with another swimmer you are thinking about not losing and don't notice the pain your body is feeling."
Things finally worked in the youngster's favour as he was granted a time trial on Sunday, the last day of the qualification period, and Nataraj grabbed the opportunity with both hands, swimming his way to the 'A' cut with an effort of 53.77s. However, there was one final obstacle in his way, the ratification of the time. "I was a little anxious (about the confirmation) but I was distracted most of the time with the sightseeing and the travel," he said after his timing was confirmed.