Set to make their debut at next month's Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast (Australia), teenagers Manu Bhaker and Srihari Nataraj are two prodigious talents who emerged as champions from the Khelo India School Games, government's ambitious flagship programme. While Manu shot her way to a gold in women's 10m Air Pistol with a score of 241.1 in the finals to rewrite her own final national record of 240.5 set at the National Shooting Championships in December last year, Srihari broke his own 100-meter backstroke national record while winning six gold and a silver medal at the Khelo India School Games.
Srihari said his participation in Khelo India was part of his training ahead of the CWG. "I was aiming for a 56.50 finish since I am preparing for the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires and the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast," Srihari had said after clocking 56.90 seconds in the 100m backstroke to improve on his own National record of 56.99 which he clocked in Tashkent last year.
Srihari started swimming when he was about two years old. A handful for his mother, the toddler was sent to a swimming pool with his elder brother so that the house could stay in order for at least a couple of hours.
It wasn't long before Srihari got addicted to the underwater moves and swimming turned into his passion. "It is a race against the clock and I want to do my best," says the 17-year-old Srihari.
Manu, on the other hand, took to shooting just a little over two years ago and has consistently performed well in global and domestic tournaments. The 16-year-old won a double gold in her maiden senior World Cup in Mexico before bagging three gold medals at the ISSF junior World Cup to emerge as a medal contender for India at the CWG starting April 4.
It's remarkable how quickly she has acquired a reputation of a formidable shooter. However, shooting is not the only sport Manu excels at. Before picking up the pistol, she was already competing at the national level in different sports.
She has won a national bronze medal in Thang Ta - a Manipuri martial art - and was also a state-level skating champion, besides being adept at tennis and athletics. "She has a natural talent for sports. She picks up a new sport quite easily. But her problem is that she used to get bored rather quickly and would give up. Also, there have been times when she felt that she had been handed a raw deal in a tournament. After that she would stop playing that sport," her father Ramkishan Bhaker said.
Both the youngsters shone in their respective nationals. Manu broke Heena Sidhu's long-standing national record and won a staggering 15 medals, including nine gold, while Srihari was adjudged the Best Swimmer at the national aquatic championships after bagging eight medals, comprising three individual gold medals and a silver.
Srihari's record timings earned him a place in the CWG along with helping him qualify for the Youth Olympics to be held in Argentina later this year. A fan of swimming legend Michael Phelps, Srihari wants to make his own mark and his eyes are set on the CWG.
Srihari's coach, AC Jayarajan, a retired Naval officer who represented Services in the National Championships, said the Khelo India games were a good training ground.
"To be honest, we included the Khelo India School Games as part of Hari's training ahead of the Commonwealth Games. The times he has clocked here are really training times rather than times we expect him to clock in competition," Jayarajan had said during the Games.
Srihari will be participating in 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events. He will look to make history by adding to Prasanta Karmakar's 50-meter freestyle (para-sport) bronze, India's only Commonwealth medal in swimming.
Manu, who hails from Dadri district in Haryana, seems to have developed an affinity for the yellow metal as is evident from her gold-medal winning streak at the ISSF Junior and Senior World Cup.
Asked about her penchant for winning medals, Manu said, "It just happens. I don't think about them. At times, I don't even know what the records are. People tell me afterward that I have broken a record. I am grateful to all my coaches for their advice and the hours they have put in to hone my technique."
Manu will also be eager to leave a lasting impression in Gold Coast by striving to swell the already rich list of medals in shooting.