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With Tokyo qualifiers nearing, Srihari Nataraj frets over closure of pools in Karnataka

Srihari Nataraj competes in the men's 200m backstroke heats at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Srihari Nataraj woke up on Monday morning to the unsettling feeling of not knowing what to make of the day ahead of him. The 20 year-old Indian swimmer is chasing an Olympic berth, but hasn't stepped into a pool in two days now. That's because, two days ago, the Karnataka government instructed pools to be shut across the state as part of its fresh guidelines to contain rising cases of COVID-19 in the state.

Ordinarily, it wouldn't be freaking him out. But he has a Tokyo qualifier in Tashkent to fly to in four days.

Srihari earned a 'B' qualification mark of 54.69 in the 100m backstroke event at the 2019 World Junior Championships in Budapest. He is now 0.84 seconds away from becoming the first Indian swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympics.

"It's frustrating, annoying and, honestly, I can't wrap my head around what's happening," he says, "This is the competition I've been planning for all these months. I believe I'm going to medal for sure but I don't want to worry about that. I'm going there to get my time ('A' mark) and I'm pretty hopeful I can manage to get it. But I just don't want to show up at the event without having trained for almost a whole week."

The Swimming Federation of India (SFI) is looking into the alternate plan for the Tashkent-bound group of swimmers to train in New Delhi for a few days before they leave for the Uzbekistan Open Championships on April 9. The federation is also in talks with the Karnataka state government to allow the swimmers who are headed for the Olympic qualifier to resume training for the event that gets underway on April 12.

Top Indian swimmers suffered among the cruelest blows due to the pandemic, with Srihari and fellow 'B' mark holders in India being forced to stay away from the pool for over five months last year. This is, in fact, going to be the Indian's first international competition since the 2019 South Asian Games. "It took us a long time to get back to our routines. We've had two competitions here in Bengaluru and there wasn't a single positive case. So when there are no cases in the sport in the first place, what is shutting down pools really addressing?" asks Srihari.

He has gleaned his technical lessons from swim biomechanics expert Dr Genadijus Sokolovas' visit to Bengaluru little more than a month ago. The young swimmer's specific brief has been to keep his arms shallower during his backstroke pull, work on his turns, rotations and use his torso more effectively to propel forward. Following last week's domestic competition, Srihari's videos were sent to Sokolovas for his inputs. He had finished with a personal best of 25.46 in the 50m backstroke event.

"It's hard," he says, "We are, after all, talking about switching things I've been doing a particular way almost all my life. I've been making the changes bit by bit but it's still not completely fixed."

As part of his pre-competition preparations, Srihari reverted to his usual cropped look ahead of last week's all India invitational, from letting his hair grow during recent months of no tournaments. Sporting shaved bodies and short hairstyles helps swimmers reduce drag in the water and make themselves more aerodynamic.

"My hair's now short enough to fit inside my cap and I don't really need a second haircut," says Srihari, "I'm pretty sure, though, that before I fly out, I'll go for the super cropped style. Psychologically it might help me because I've always had the same haircut for big meets. It's one of those things that you just do to put the mind at ease. But above everything else, I hope we get to train before we leave for Tashkent."