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"He must reach the semis": Srihari Nataraj's former coach sets his Tokyo Olympics target

Srihari Nataraj will compete in the 100m backstroke event
Srihari Nataraj will compete in the 100m backstroke event
Abhishek Saini

Outside the Ramakrishna Hegde Swimming Pool near JP Park, in Bengaluru, stands a big billboard that reads – Srihari Nataraj: The medal machine of Indian swimming.

The 20-year-old from Malleshwaram has caught the attention of the nation by qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 in the 100m backstroke event. He clocked a 53.77s finish in a time trial event at the Sette Colli Swimming Meet and secured a berth for the summer games. Nataraj has been training for the Olympics at Dolphin Aquatics under the reputed Nihar Ameen.

However, there is another man who has played a pivotal role in Nataraj’s rise. AC Jayarajan, a former Navy officer, has been training young swimmers in Bengaluru since 1995. He has also coached the Indian swimming contingents for various global events like the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the Youth Olympics. It was Jayarajan who discovered Nataraj’s ability when he came to him as a 2-year-old.

Jayarajan has seen Srihari Nataraj grow up. He has trained him for all major competitions and has seen all his ups and downs. It was under his tutelage at the Ramakrishna Hegde Swimming Pool that Nataraj made a name for himself.

It was under his tutelage that Nataraj secured the B cut for the Tokyo Olympics in 2019. Although Nataraj’s decision to switch to another coach was a tough pill to swallow for Jayarajan, the ex-Navyman continues to root for his former student.

AC Jayarajan with Srihari Nataraj
AC Jayarajan with Srihari Nataraj

Srihari Nataraj's journey till Tokyo Olympics

In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, Jayarajan discussed the rise of Srihari Nataraj, his journey to the Olympics and what he expects from the promising swimmer.

AC Jayarajan shared that Nataraj has been an avid learner since the day he first took him under his wing. He said:

“He came to me as a 2-year-old. First, he used to accompany his brother and mother, then he gradually picked up the sport himself.”

In no time, Srihari started winning medals at the competitions he participated in. In each age category he participated, he secured the top place on the podium. Although shifted to Nihar Ameen for some time, he returned after a string of under-par results. Speaking about his rise through the national circuit, Jayarajan said:

“He became the national champion in Age Group IV under me. Then for a brief period he trained under Nihar. When he returned, he was in Age Group II i.e. 14 years and below. After returning, he was again the national champion in the backstroke event in 50m,100m and 200m. Soon after he went on to represent India at the Youth Olympic Games, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.”

Jayarajan added that what he admired about Nataraj and what made him stand out from others was his commitment to the sport.

Also Checkout: Tokyo Olympics Swimming Schedule

“He has no weakness. He is very dedicated in practice and is a thorough professional. He strives for perfection. When he was training with me, he was improving his timing with every race.”

But after securing the B cut, their preparations for meeting the A qualifications were hit because of the pandemic. After months away from the pool, the Sports Authority of India arranged for Srihari Nataraj’s training in Dubai along with Sajan Prakash and Kushagra Rawat. They were accompanied by Jayarajan for this. But after their return, much to the disappointment of Jayarajan, Srihari decided to train under Nihar Ameen. Jayarajan shared:

“We did not have a 50m pool. Nihar was scouting for talented swimmers and he had an eye on Nataraj for quite some time, so he shifted to Dolphin Aquatics under Nihar’s training.”

Jayarajan added:

“It hurt. We put in so much work on his development. I know him better than anyone and I’m confident that under my training he would have performed well at the Olympics. But, life moves on. He should train wherever he is comfortable; all I want is that his talent should not be wasted.”

On his expectations from his former student at the Tokyo Olympics, Jayarajan said:

“He has all my best wishes. His performance in the Tokyo Olympics will determine his progress for the future. He must strive to better his time of 53.77s. He is young and has a lot of scope to improve. The hype that comes with the Olympics can also do harm at times. So, he must be mentored with care.”

While Srihari Nataraj aims to make a mark at the Tokyo Olympics, AC Jayarajan is back to doing what he knows best. The coach continues to tutor young swimmers for the future and preparing them to compete at global competitions. He has his eyes set on the upcoming Asian, and Commonwealth Games. He hopes a few of his students make it to the games.

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Edited by S Chowdhury

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