Spurred by late father’s gift of a baseball cap, Srihari Nataraj ready for 100m backstroke final at Commonwealth Games

A baseball cap – “not a swimming cap” as he stresses – given to him by his late father that he refuses to give away though he’s outgrown it. A competition bag he packs the same exact way, not one thing out of place. A chocolate bar he can’t do without, and a strict no-no for crisps – that’s what’s on Srihari Nataraj’s mind as he chases a historic Commonwealth Games medal in 100m backstroke tonight at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Birmingham.

Virdhawal Khade made the 50m butterfly finals in 2010, and was part of India’s 4x100m freestyle relay team that finished 6th at Delhi.

“I’ve waited for this day for four years. All my life maybe. I’m going for a medal. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be possible,” Srihari told The Indian Express after a semifinal in which he sealed his finals spot in his favourite event. “I just have to ensure I don’t overthink.”

The baseball cap is a memory that keeps him driven and happy about his goals. “It’s as old as me or even older than me perhaps. I carry it with me everywhere I go as my dad’s memory,” he says, just before starting to pack his bag for the night. “Everything has to be in the same spot,” he repeats. Breakfast will be light – cereal, eggs and toast. “Nothing crisp.” Not till goals are achieved.

Srihari started out well in the heats, though the turn at 50m wasn’t exactly perfect. He got better at it in the semis. “The push at 50 turn could’ve been stronger. I felt great till 75m but last 25 could’ve been much better in semis,” he explained. “The semis were a little rough and I wasn’t as fast as I expected. Wasn’t pushing whole hog but didn’t want to be too casual either.”

Perhaps the best improvement has been in his poise in the pool to not be affected by what’s happening in lanes on his left and right, getting drawn into the slipstream or lull of others. “I’m not concerned about the guy next to me. How fast or slow he’s going. That helps in focus,” Srihari says.

The 100m backstroke has been the tall swimmer’s pet event where he’s dropped most times over the last few seasons consistently. “Six-seven years, it all crystallises into this one night,” he smiles, keeping a steady voice. The young man has a good head on those windmilling shoulders. And a loving father’s slightly fading childhood gift – a baseball cap on that good head as he heads into the biggest Saturday yet of his life.

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