The 2021 Olympics marked a new beginning for Indian swimming. Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash ensured that for the first time two Indian swimmers made the A cut for the Summer Games. Maana Patel's participation via the B cut completed the 3-person Indian contingent for the Tokyo Olympics.
Despite the trio not making it past their heats, Indian swimming has all the reasons to be happy with their progress. For the first time, India has a pool of swimmers, both young and experienced, that promise to impress in the upcoming Asian and Commonwealth Games.
Srihari Nataraj is the one leading the way. The 20-year-old from Bengaluru has won medals in several international competitions and is one of the best backstroke swimmers in the country. Nataraj qualified for the 100m backstroke event at the 2021 Olympics with a personal best timing of 53.77s. However, he could only clock 54.21s during his heat in Tokyo.
Speaking to Sportskeeda on his Olympics debut, Srihari Nataraj said:
“It was a good experience. Similar to what I’ve experienced at tournaments like Youth Olympics and Asian Games. It was not something completely new. Some takeaways from the race were that I need to open better, my underwater is not as good. Some minor changes needed. I need to make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes again.”
Srihari Nataraj was expecting to make the semifinals in the 100m backstroke but fell short. He thinks he could have done better to achieve his target had he been given a little more time to prepare. However, he is now determined to do better at upcoming events next year. He added:
“Going into the next year, we have the world championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. I just want to focus on that and target a couple of medals in each. It’s something I know I can get done.”
2014 Asian Games medalist and swimmer Sandeep Sejwal is also confident that Indian swimming is making positive strides. He believes the upcoming swimmers are bridging the gap between India and the western swimming heavyweights like the United States of America. Sejwal said:
“In the last couple of years, we’ve caught up with the Americans and the Europeans. There was a large gap earlier, but in the last couple of years we’ve managed to reduce that drastically. And I hope it continues this way.”
However, Sejwal feels that there is a big barrier that might prevent the Indian swimmers from utilizing their potential at the Asian Games next year. He said:
“The only hurdle we’re facing right now is that the pools are not opening [due to Covid-19 protocols]. If the pools don’t open, I don’t see the gap bridging anytime soon. So, there are so many people just sitting at home and not being able to train.”
He added that swimmers are having to go abroad to train for their events. He said:
“We have a few swimmers who have been training abroad like Aryan Makhija, Advit Paghe and Kenisha Gupta. They’ve been doing really well and pushing themselves. It’ll be really interesting to see how they perform at the Asian Games coming up next year.”
Target for Indian swimmers after the Olympics
Sandeep Sejwal has been a professional swimmer for a good part over the last decade. He won medals at various competitions for India, including the 2014 Asian Games. When asked what has changed since the time he started swimming, he said:
“I think the government realized that swimming can get medals. At the two Commonwealth Games in 2010 and 2014, swimmers won medals so that opened up the possibilities. That was the big change, and the funding started coming in after that.”
Kamlesh Nanavati, a swimming coach and former secretary of the Swimming Federation of India, also highlighted how the federation has emphasized training young swimmers for the 2022 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.
Speaking to Sportskeeda, Nanavati said:
“We are focused on the 2022 Asian Games and expect 5-6 medals in the games. Till now only Sandeep and Virdhawal have won medals. But now we have guys like Srihari, Kushagra and Advit Paghe doing so well. They made the B cut for the Olympics. They couldn’t compete [in Tokyo] but they’ve been doing very well. I’m very hopeful for the Asian Games and that in the near future Indian swimmers will do well.”
Rome wasn't built in a day. The same could be said for world-class swimmers. It takes years to produce champions who can win laurels for their countries.
The USA is a prime example. Their collegiate swimming programs have been in place for several years. India is headed in that direction. We're still a long way from the goal, but the progress made over the past few years gives all indications of a brighter future.