Olympian swimmer Srihari Nataraj and his contemporary Siva Sridhar dished out stand-out performances at the ongoing Khelo India University Games in Bengaluru.
Srihari Nataraj won six gold medals and one silver medal in the ongoing Games, while Siva Sridhar bagged seven golds and two silver medals.
The two swimmers - foes in the pool but dear friends off it - have been closely keeping tabs on each other's success since 2008.
"I met Siva in 2008 during a Swim Life competition for non-medalists. He beat me in all the events," Srihari Nararaj recalled vividly on the sidelines of the Khelo India Games. He went on to quickly add that he beat him the next year in the same events.
The two swimmers have shared a healthy rivalry over the past couple of years, be it at the sub-junior nationals, the junior nationals or at the senior national swimming championships.
"I think until 2014, he would beat me in pretty much all the backstroke events. That was our main event: 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke. The races were always close," Srihari Nataraj said.
From criticizing each other's performances to arguing about who was the best in a race and conveying compliments on their races and exchanging notes on their training sessions, the duo engage in nonstop banter when out of the waters.
"We are warring in the pool but when we are outside, we are really good friends. We've known each other's families also for a very long time and it's always been this healthy rivalry," explained Siva, who is on the cusp of winning the individual championship title at the Khelo India University Games 2021 with maximum medals.
While Siva is the quieter one, and likes to listen, Srihari Nataraj is not the one to stop chattering away. Giving advice, more often than not, Srihari Natraj said:
"He (Siva) sometimes doesn't plan his races well. He opens too fast and ends up getting slower in his finish but I think here, he was really good in most of his races particularly the 200m IM (where Siva set a new meet record)."
Srihari Nataraj overtakes Siva
Introspecting his own performances over the last few years, especially in comparison to Srihari Nataraj's, who has gone on to become the youngest to clock the Olympic Qualification mark, Siva said the decision to move to South Africa in 2015 had backfired.
"I think I lost out on precious years when I opted to go to South Africa for three years on a swimming scholarship in April 2015. I was home sick; I had gotten very lean and I came back much slower. When I saw Srihari at the 2017 Junior National Championships in Pune, I thought he had gone way ahead of me. That's when it got to me that things weren't working for me in South Africa, I had hit and plateaued and decided to come back to India for good. When I came back, I couldn't even qualify for the nationals. It was bad and I have really had to work hard to bounce back," he said.
Playing catch up now, Siva is hopeful of building on the tremendous confidence he has gained from his performances at the Khelo India University Games to up his game. In the coming months, they will be competing in an array of events, including the senior nationals, where Siva will attempt to make the mark for the Asian Games.
"There is a lot I am taking away from my performances here at the Khelo India Games. It was reassuring that I still have it in me to make the cut for the Asian Games, where I wish to enter for the 100m backstroke along with Srihari Nataraj who has already qualified," said Siva.
Srihari Nataraj loved the prospect of teaming up with Siva for the Asian Games.
"That would be really nice if he can qualify for the Asian Games and if we both can swim 100m backstrokes just like good old times. Now, he needs to cut almost 1.5 seconds in 100m backstrokes and stand a chance in 200m IM too and I definitely think he can do it," Srihari Nataraj concluded.