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'I'm ready to go anywhere. I just need a pool' - Srihari Nataraj's Olympic dream on hold

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

At the start of the year, Indian swimmer Srihari Nataraj had a problem of plenty. Looking to kick his Olympic preparation into high gear, the 19-year-old was trying to decide where to train -- looking at facilities in Australia, Canada and the U.S.

Today, Nataraj would settle for just about any pool, just for a chance to get back to swimming.

"Right now I'm simply hoping I can train. I'm ready to go anywhere. I just need a pool," he says.

Nataraj's thoughts are shared by every other Olympic swimming hopeful in India. Since March 25, when the country entered a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, swimming pools have been shut across the country. They remain shut, even as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has slowly reduced restrictions over the past few weeks. On July 29, in the latest guidelines (unlock 3.0), swimming pools were instructed to remain shut, even as gymnasiums were permitted to reopen.

Nataraj, who held the national record in the 100m backstroke at 54.69s, had already matched the Olympics' B Standard (55.47s) in that event but was looking to earn the A standard (53.85s), which would confirm his ticket to Tokyo as a first-time Olympian. "I was looking at training in some really high quality facilities. In Australia, I was looking at the Sydney Olympic Park, while in Canada, the option was to go to the University of Toronto," he says.

For the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), which has been trying to get an exemption to permit elite swimmers to resume training, the guidelines have come as a further setback. "We don't have any answers. There is no logic to this decision. If we cannot make six people (the total number of Indian swimmers who have achieved B Qualification-- Nataraj, Virdhawal Khade, Sajan Prakash, Kushagra Rawat, Aryan Makhija, Advait Page) secure in an isolated swimming facility, then there's not much that can be done. If we can't look at that, there's not much option apart from training outside the country," a federation official said.

Nataraj admits it's getting harder to simply hold on to hope for a resumption of training in India. "One or two months of not being able to train is understandable. To go five months without training is a huge setback for my career," he says.

He has done what he could on dry land in Bangalore. "I live in a family apartment complex so I'm able to run on stairs and work out outdoors. There was a point where lockdown was restricted in Bangalore, so I got myself a complete weight set, that I can use as a gym," he says.

But he knows this is only a partial fix. "It doesn't matter what I do outside the pool. My results almost entirely depend on the work I do in the water. I can spend the entire day in the gym but it's a whole different thing inside the water. Even the way you bend your little finger can have a huge role to play. These things can only be done with a lot of swim training in the water. Right now my motivation levels go up and down. I only continue to train because I feel that when I do find a pool eventually, I shouldn't waste time returning to fitness," he says.

In desperation, with recognised swimming facilities shut, Nataraj says he even scouted for apartments which might have a pool. That search too came up short.

Over the last couple of weeks, Nataraj has been increasingly of the idea that he has to leave the country in order to resume training. Currently just one swimmer who has attained the Olympic B Standard - Sajan Prakash - is training abroad. Prakash was already training in Thailand when the coronavirus pandemic spread. A few others who aren't at the Olympic standard are also expected to leave. "We have a few Indian swimmers who are on scholarships in universities in the U.S. I believe a few of them are travelling back. And I think those universities have begun training as well," says Monal Choksi, secretary general of the SFI.

Options are, however, more limited for Nataraj. He hasn't rechecked with the swimming facilities he was considering at the start of the year but he isn't hopeful. "I have a friend who trains at the Sydney Olympic Park. I asked him about the possibility of coming to Australia and he told me that the facility isn't accepting swimmers who aren't already registered with them. It's even less likely that they will accept a swimmer from overseas at this point. There are a lot of restrictions," he says.

Although he initially felt a pang of regret that he didn't travel outside the country before international flights were cancelled and borders sealed, he's come to terms with it. "Even if I had travelled abroad, most swimming facilities would have shut anyway. My funding comes entirely from my family and the government so I'd be spending money for nothing. It wouldn't have been worth it," he says.

Overseas training, though, might be unavoidable now. One option the swimmers have is to go to Dubai. "Our national coach Pradeep Kumar is the chief coach at a major facility there. That's our best chance, although I'm leaving it to our federation to decide how to go about it," says Nataraj.

The SFI says that while they are pushing the proposal to train overseas, the matter isn't in their hands."It isn't like before where we can just catch a flight and train abroad. We need specific permissions to be allowed to train in a pool, or to leave the country. The key is with the MHA for both those options," says Choksi.