VEDANGI’S QUEST / THE JOURNEY BEGINS

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo has been downloaded from Vedangi’s website and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright violation intended)

A young Indian cyclist seeks to become the fastest woman to go around the world unsupported on a bicycle. She began her journey earlier today, July 17.

Vedangi Kulkarni has commenced her quest to be the fastest woman to circumnavigate the globe unsupported on a bicycle.

News of her upcoming project was in the media since last year. The expedition was slated to commence in June 2018. But owing to delay related to securing visas for some of the countries she would be passing through, the trip started only earlier today, July 17, 2018. Her father, Vivek Kulkarni, who is in Perth – the city that is the start and finish line of her circumnavigation – confirmed to this blog that Vedangi’s expedition has begun. “ She started her trip at midnight,” Vivek said.

As per information available on Vedangi’s website, her journey of 18,000 miles (approximately 29,000 kilometers) will be attempted in four stages. The first stage will see her cycling through Australia and New Zealand. The second stage will see her cycling across Alaska and Canada. The third stage spans Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Mongolia. The fourth and last stage covers China and the trip back to where she started in Australia. Given the fact that all required visas cannot be applied for and obtained well in advance, the exact route of Vedangi’s expedition has to stay open to adjustments as her journey progresses.

Just before the start of expedition in Perth (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Wikipedia, the rules governing records in circumnavigation by bicycle were changed in 2013. The rules require that the journey should be continuous and in one direction (east to west or west to east); the minimum distance ridden should be 18,000 miles and the total distance covered by rider and bicycle should exceed the length of the Equator. The clock does not stop for any waiting time; for transit flights, ferries and the duration of such transit en route. Going by the Internet, the record Vedangi seeks to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014, aged 32 and fresh from losing her job, Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. She broke Juliana Buhring’s 2012 record of 152 days.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017, Vivek said. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. “ We have to be flexible as regards the route,” Vivek said. She plans to cover close to 200 miles every day. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on information available on Vedangi Kulkarni’s website, Wikipedia and conversation with her father.)

ROHAN MORE: GEARING UP FOR A NEW CHALLENGE

Rohan More (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In 2017, Rohan Dattatrey More was selected for the year’s Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award. The Pune based-swimmer was well into a series of long distance swims when the award was announced. In February 2018, he wrapped up the Oceans Seven challenge. He had bagged marathon swimming’s Triple Crown earlier. He now dreams of taking a shot at the Olympics; the open water swimming event therein. At the time of publishing this article, Rohan worked with Infosys.

The word asthma is derived from the Greek term for panting.

In regular life, panting and asthma are very different.

Asthma is a medical condition; it affects the airways and can make breathing difficult. Doctors are known to recommend swimming for children suffering from asthma. Information available on the Internet says there is no evidence yet to prove swimming is better than other exercises in this regard. Preference for it appears founded on a few factors. First, swimming is one of the best exercises. It is particularly noted for its low impact on joints.  Second, when done with proper technique, the strain of swimming is handled without recourse to panting. You settle into a rhythm, inhaling above water and exhaling in it. There is also the general perception that the moist respiratory environment of swimming is less of a trigger for asthma than dry ambiance. Third – as one doctor this blog spoke to put it – exercise and outdoors are broadly deemed to be good for growing a healthy immune system. When you encourage a child suffering from asthma to take up swimming, you are hoping that its immune system is strengthened while its respiratory system gains from gradual passage through exercise-induced stress and adaptation. The overall benefits of acquiring improved lung capacity through swimming are seen to outweigh risks like exercise induced-asthma.

From the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Rohan Dattatrey More is the only child of his parents. Born 1985 in Pune to a father who served in the police and a mother who was a housewife, Rohan attended Nutan Marathi Vidyalaya in the city. He suffered from respiratory problems. The doctor recommended sports and athletics, particularly swimming.  “ I started swimming from around four years of age,’’ he said, end-June 2018 at his apartment not far from Pune’s Senapati Bapat Road and Symbiosis College. His mother, Vijaya, who accompanied him to his swimming sessions, appears to have been a major influence in how Rohan’s early years in swimming evolved. Rohan swam at the S.P. College swimming pool; it was of Olympic dimension. He was an introvert; metaphorically a lot like Sunk Rock, the lighthouse mounted on a pier and located some five kilometers out at sea from Mumbai, a city of thickly packed buildings. Compared to the cheek by jowl living conditions of Mumbai, Sunk Rock seems a lonely outpost; a pillar of a lighthouse jutting out from the sea. Those days, many swimmers from Pune used to head out to Mumbai for attempting the distance swim from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. Vijaya, asked around if ten year-old Rohan could attempt it. The resultant trip to Mumbai with three day’s practice at Juhu beach, ahead of race, was Rohan’s first experience of the sea. Armed with those three days of familiarity with the sea, the ten year-old successfully swam the distance from Sunk Rock to Gateway of India. “ I had to get used to the dynamics of open water. But I didn’t worry about depth. Once you know you are a good swimmer, you don’t fear depth,’’ Rohan said of his first major tryst with open water swimming.

Five years after Rohan’s Sunk Rock-Gateway of India swim, the first section of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway would open, reducing the time taken to travel between the two cities. The road to Pune from Mumbai passes through Khopoli. With an elevation of approximately 200 feet and located at the base of the climb to Lonavala and Pune beyond, Khopoli is gateway to the hills. The Amba River originates in the nearby hills. At the point where this small river meets the Arabian Sea, is Dharamtar, now an upcoming port. For Rohan, the next logical progression after his Sunk Rock-Gateway of India adventure was to try the annual Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. It is 35 kilometers long. He trained with emphasis on greater mileage.  On land, 35 kilometers is less than a marathon. The average amateur runner in Mumbai completes a full marathon in under-five hours. Progression in water is a lot slower. Given the longer distance involved in his next objective and the fact that swimming takes time, Rohan had to be prepared for an early morning start – in the dark hours preceding sunrise – if called for. He obtained special permission from the pool authorities in Pune and trained at night to get used to swimming in darkness. Vijaya accompanied him to the pool for these training sessions.

Crossing the Cook Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

This phase in his life also represented another transition. Ever since he started frequenting the pool, Rohan had developed into a strong, competitive swimmer.  Swimming around three kilometers every day, he was good enough to merit podium finishes at district level competitions and represent Pune district at state level competitions. He specialized in 100 meters and 200 meters backstroke. Post Sunk Rock, as he aspired for Dharamtar-Gateway, the drift in training moved from short distance swims to long ones entailing endurance. The concept of endurance entered the frame. In December 1996, an eleven year-old Rohan successfully completed Dharamtar-Gateway, covering the 35 kilometer-distance in seven hours, twenty nine minutes. At that time, he was the youngest swimmer to complete the annual challenge. “ By now I realized that I liked open water swimming. Unlike in the swimming pool, you see no boundaries at sea. It is open on all sides. I like that,’’ Rohan said.

Human life however isn’t as barrier-free as the sea. Geographically, Pune is part of Maharashtra’s `Desh’ region, plateau situated at higher elevation from the sea coast. Apart from some lakes and reservoirs, it offers no scope for open water swimming, certainly nothing comparable to the sea gracing the Konkan coast far below. Dharamtar-Gateway done, Rohan returned to training at the swimming pool in Pune with occasional forays to larger tanks. As he grew older, he graduated from representing Pune district to representing the state in swimming; he was also member of the state water polo team. When he reached eleventh standard, the fabled Great Wall of India went up – studying for exams and focus on academics. The years went by characterless; swimming reduced to recreational swimming. He studied engineering at the Government College of Engineering, Pune and secured a job with Cognizant Technology Solutions, a leading IT company with operations in India. For the next five to six years he worked in Pune, a visit to the pool or an occasional bout of football was all he did to break the monotony. Dharamtar-Gateway seemed distant memory.

Crossing the English Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

In 2013, Cognizant transferred him to Abu Dhabi, a city blessed with Persian Gulf for coastline but too hot for working person to find adequate hours for swimming in the sea. “ I explored Abu Dhabi as best as I could. But in six months I ran out of places to explore,’’ Rohan said of his predicament. He hit the gym with two friends. That soon dwindled to just him. He then started to swim at a pool, apprehensive alongside that the swimming too would die like the gym visits did. But a video of the English Channel he chanced to come by changed things.  An old itch returned. Back in 1996, when he returned from Mumbai after the Dharamtar-Gateway swim, Rohan had picked up a new fascination – the English Channel. He had heard the name mentioned in the Dharamtar-Gateway swimming community. He complemented that by reading up about Indian distance swimmers; among them – Bula Choudhury, the swimmer from West Bengal who swam the English Channel twice in 1989 and 1999. For almost seventeen years all that curiosity and research had stayed locked up in the head. Now, in the moneyed urban expanse of Abu Dhabi, the small voice of adventure and open water swimming beckoned stronger.

In the last Ice Age, when sea level was far lower than today, England wasn’t an island. It was connected to France in continental Europe by a ridge. As the ice cap receded, two instances of flooding are supposed to have eroded and submerged the ridge. The resultant 560 kilometer-long body of water between France and England, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, is now known as the English Channel. The Channel varies in width from 240 kilometers to 33.3 kilometers. The narrowest part is called Dover Strait. Among the world’s busiest shipping lanes, it is also a magnet for endurance swimmers. Nobody quite knows how the imagery around the Channel as an objective in swimming, commenced. Some accounts (available on the Internet) mention the case – albeit unconfirmed – of a captured Italian sailor who escaped swimming the distance in 1815. Nobody knew if this was correct or not. The question lingered, likely engaging the fancy of those with the bend of mind to try. The first recorded successful unassisted crossing was by Captain Mathew Webb of England. On August 25, 1875, he swam from Dover to Calais in less than 22 hours. The swim made him famous. He licensed his name for merchandising and participated in exhibition swimming contests and stunts. He died at the age of 35 while attempting a swim through the Whirlpool Rapids below North America’s Niagara Falls. The first Indian to successfully cross the English Channel was Mihir Sen; in 1958, he swam from Dover to Calais in 14 hours, 45 minutes.

From the swim across the Catalina Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Not long after he saw the video on the English Channel, Rohan researched the topic of swimming across the channel, further. Given most channels targeted for crossing feature currents, tides, marine life and maritime traffic; not to mention marathon swimmer’s need for nutrition and hydration along the way, crossings are done with the aid of a support vessel. Rohan emailed eight to nine English Channel-pilots. They would be the ones managing the support boat guiding a swimmer through. In January 2014, one of the pilots replied informing of windows available in the period spanning July-September. Rohan settled for July 2014. Against the generally recommended two years of preparation, he had six months to get ready. Around January 20, he started training for the attempt in Abu Dhabi. He was a curiosity at the pool. Nobody from Abu Dhabi had trained in the city to cross the English Channel. Rohan persisted. Regaining three kilometers – his old benchmark in daily training – wasn’t a problem.  The difficulty began as Abu Dhabi’s summer unfolded.  It was very hot. By the end of March, Rohan was getting muscle spasms. His right arm wasn’t holding up well. The situation wasn’t making sense for another reason too. The English Channel is characterized by cold water, just the opposite of conditions in Abu Dhabi. Amid this, in April, Rohan had to rush to Pune as his father suffered brain-stroke. While in Pune, he continued to train at Tilak Tank in the city.

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

By May, he was managing four kilometers at his training sessions. He also availed acupuncture treatment for the right arm. According to Rohan, the credit for solving the issue goes to a local masseur. He returned to Abu Dhabi from Pune with the massage oil the masseur provided. It helped ease the pain. One problem remained on the English Channel front – he had to do a six hour-swim in water temperature of 16 degrees centigrade to qualify. The evidence must be submitted to authorities, a fortnight before one’s Channel attempt. There was no way he could do this in Abu Dhabi. So Rohan resolved to do the qualifier in England. Two major angles were thus reserved for addressing in Dover – getting acquainted with the cold waters of the English Channel and executing the qualifier. He needed enough days on hand for this. The last obstacle Rohan had to cross in Abu Dhabi was getting leave from office. A new boss had taken charge and he wasn’t appreciative of so many days required to attempt crossing the English Channel. In matters of this sort, you cannot dialogue with those lacking empathy for the subject. Rohan’s work in Abu Dhabi revolved around a client located there. Luckily, Rajesh Narayanan, a senior official at the client’s office, understood the attraction for English Channel and the need for adequate time to do the crossing. He agreed to Rohan being away for that long, prompting in turn the sanctioning of Rohan’s leave from his own office. On June 19, Rohan left for England. None at home in Pune were told of his plan to attempt crossing the English Channel. As far as they were concerned, he was away in England on work.

Rohan and his mother, Vijaya, after Rohan’s swim across the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Sonia & Martin welcome you to their family run Victorian Guest House – so goes the introduction to Sandown Guest House on its website. In Dover, Rohan found accommodation at Sandown. From April 15 till the end of May, he had been swimming four hours daily in Abu Dhabi. He also put in two sessions of eight hours each and two sessions of seven hours each. As he stepped into the waters of the English Channel, the cold temperature hit him. “ It was a Friday. After five to ten minutes in the water, I had a headache, my forearms were paining and after I came out, I was shivering. I ran from the beach to the hotel, downed cups of coffee and still I was feeling cold,’’ Rohan said. Weekends at Dover, Channel swimmers from elsewhere in England arrive to train. Thanks to Martin, Rohan got an opportunity to meet them. The interaction helped. That Saturday he swam for five hours; by Sunday he had touched six, which also served as qualifier. On July 14, he informed his pilot that he was ready to avail a window for the crossing.

After one call to start on July 19 aborted at Dover harbor owing to sudden onset of bad weather, Rohan commenced his swim on July 25 at 10 PM. There were hiccups en route. He had to change his goggles while in the water. Anticipating a swim largely in daylight he had brought along dark goggles. Now in the darkness of night, he could see nothing. “ I was blindly following the light on the boat. That light was all I could see’’ he said. While still in water, he traded his goggles for clearer ones. The hours went by. In open water swims the swimming is rarely in a straight line. The course changes with weather, maritime traffic and sea conditions, including currents and the movement of tides. The English Channel swim is typically in the pattern of `Z’.  Around the tenth hour of swimming, Rohan had a pain killer. By the eleventh hour, he could see the French coast. But the sighting was one thing. Reaching there took another two to two and half hours. He accomplished the crossing of the English Channel in 13 hours, 23 minutes. Against the distance of roughly 36 kilometers to cross, that day his crossing entailed covering 48 kilometers.  Once on land, he accessed a phone and informed his parents who had no idea of his attempt, that he had crossed the English Channel. “ I could swim the English Channel because I was a free person. I had nothing to prove,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Molokai Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

While researching English Channel, he had stumbled upon the challenge in open water swimming called Oceans Seven.  In fact, before leaving Abu Dhabi for England and the English Channel, he had booked an attempt to cross the North Channel in August. The North Channel is the coldest of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. The relevant swimming association in Ireland wrote back advising against Rohan’s planned attempt of the North Channel as it is cold and demanding. There should be adequate rest between a crossing of the English Channel and attempting the North Channel. “ They said your money is safe. You will have your chance. But train and come back,’’ Rohan said. Not one to sit idle, he therefore booked a slot to cross California’s Catalina Channel in September 2014. “ Catalina is easier than the English Channel. Water temperature is warmer and the currents are less powerful,’’ he said. The main challenge in Catalina is – sharks. The crossing is therefore attempted at night. All the lights on the boat are switched off.  Swimming so is a peculiar experience. There are two glow sticks on the pilot’s boat, which swimmer follows loyally. There is one glow stick attached to swimmer for those on boat to track. There is also one safety kayaker in the water, keeping a watch on swimmer’s progress. While this may seem simple enough, accounts of open water swimming available on the Internet, speak of swimmer’s bobbing position in the water and the equally bobbing predicament of boat and its lights, as potential cause for swimmer to feel disoriented. For the Catalina Channel crossing (and every channel crossing thereafter), Rohan’s mother accompanied him on the trip. The swim played out well; he completed the crossing surrounded by a herd of dolphins. The time taken was 10 hours, 17 minutes. By now, Rohan was firmly locked into pursuing Oceans Seven and Triple Crown, another challenge in open water swimming made of the English Channel, Catalina Channel and the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.

For the month after Catalina, Rohan had booked an attempt at crossing the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. Also known as Kaiwi Channel, the waters here are pretty deep, plunging up to 2300 feet below the surface. Rohan elected for a swim commencing at night. He felt it would be good to labor in water during the night and be ready for the pleasure of landfall by the morning sun. That proved to be a miscalculation. “ The night went by and quite a chunk of the following day as well,’’ he said laughing. On October 26, he accomplished the crossing in 17 hours, 28 minutes of swimming. It was late evening when it ended. For most of us, big projects are above all an invitation to be aware of the associated risk. Distance; depth, ocean dynamics, marine life – they all hit us, do jigs in the brain. Rohan said he takes note of risk but doesn’t dwell on it unnecessarily. Even in the context surrounding an imminent channel crossing, where other swimmers are also present, he said he does not latch on to conversation about risk. He would much rather listen to training tips or positive aspects around the attempt and discover things as they unfold. “ It is the pilot’s job to take me to the destination. My job is to follow the boat. Beyond a point, it is not my business to worry about current, wind speed and tide,’’ Rohan said.

Crossing the North Channel (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

After Molokai, Rohan rested for a month. He resumed training in December 2014. In March 2015, Rohan wound up his work in Abu Dhabi and returned to India. 2015 was to be a busy year. In June he completed the Manhattan Island swim and bagged Triple Crown.  “ My focus that year was on the North Channel crossing. It proved to be brutal,’’ Rohan said. His research indicating potential battering in the channel separating north-eastern Northern Ireland and south-western Scotland, Rohan concentrated on strengthening his core muscles as best as he could. The reason was simple. Open water swimming is primarily a mind game.  However as regards its engagement of the human body, the bulk of the work is done by the core.

According to Rohan, out in the cold waters of the sea, it is only a matter of time before swimmer loses sensation of his extremities. The arms and legs keep working mechanically driven by commands from the brain. Sometimes, in the depths of a long distance swim, it becomes utterly tough to keep the body horizontal in the water. The legs begin to tire and cave in. To counter this, the core has to be strong. Rohan concluded that if all this punishment was due in the North Channel, then, he better work like mad on his core. So in addition to swimming, he ran and cycled in Pune. “ I prefer to run on trails as that helps engage the core more than running on roads,’’ Rohan said. A typical mix of all three activities meant 10 kilometers of running, three hours of swimming and 40-50 kilometers of cycling – all in a day, including a portion of the night for completing the cycling. On weekends, he hiked that to 20 kilometers of running, 15 kilometers of swimming and 110 kilometers of cycling. This training regimen resembles a series of triathlons. Interestingly, for all this training, an open water swimmer like Rohan hardly resembles the typical triathlete in physical appearance. Ahead of a demanding channel crossing, swimmer may even put on weight for some amount of body fat is good insulation against the cold of the sea.

Induction as Honouree Swimmer Class of 2018, by the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. According to published reports, Mihir Sen was the first Indian swimmer to be recognized so, in 1956, followed by Taranath Shenoy in 1987 (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

As with his English Channel attempt, Rohan reached Ireland a month before his shot at the North Channel. He used the time to acclimatize, get used to the cold water. Formidable as this training and build up to crossing the North Channel may seem, there is also one underlying truth in challenges around open water swimming. By now, Rohan was experiencing some of the proverbial wind beneath one’s wings that all human beings seek in life. As you progress through the challenges of Oceans Seven, the body begins to anticipate what it must cope with at sea. “ It knows what to expect in the next challenge,’’ Rohan said. And as that knowledge builds up, you work with a body more willing to respond than before. His preparations in Ireland started in July with swims in waters having a temperature of around 15 degrees centigrade. Given it rained in the mornings, early morning swimming sessions were cold. For the first week, he swam during the warmer afternoon; then shifted to cold mornings. Slowly he worked his way down to water temperature of 11-12 degrees centigrade. The North Channel features cold water and strong currents. “ Nobody attempts this channel crossing at night,’’ Rohan said.

Swimming across the Tsugaru Strait (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

On the day of his attempt to cross the North Channel, there were three swimmers – including him – in the water. While the other two started earlier, Rohan commenced his swim at 4.30 AM. Ahead was a third challenge besides cold and current, to tackle. Jellyfish are free swimming marine animals that are very intriguing to behold and painful when they sting. They usually have an umbrella shaped bell and trailing tentacles. The bell pulsates to provide propulsion; the tentacles are armed with stinging cells. Jellyfish is found all over the world from the surface waters of the sea to its great depths. The largest known species of jellyfish is the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish. They are residents of cold water. In size, those residing in the higher latitudes tend to be bigger. The bell of a Lion’s Mane can be as big as six to seven feet in diameter and its trailing tentacles can be up to a hundred feet long. The cold waters of North Channel are among places hosting the Lion’s Mane.  “ You see them along with Blue Moons,’’ Rohan said. The latter is likely reference to the much smaller common jellyfish, which is capable of limited motion and typically drifts with the current. According to information on the Internet, the common jellyfish has a weak sting that is just about felt while the Lion’s Mane can make its presence felt. Both are nowhere near the pain caused by genuinely toxic jellyfish. When you are swimming out at sea, any sting can worry. The important thing is to not panic. “ North Channel is where I saw the most jellyfish in all my swims,’’ Rohan said. His passage included a few stings to remember the swim by. Rohan completed the North Channel crossing in 12 hours, 46 minutes. Despite late start, he reached the other side before the other two swimmers did. It was August 8, 2015.

Japan is a stratovolcanic archipelago composed of 6852 islands. The largest island is Honshu; the second largest is Hokkaido located to the north of Honshu. Between Honshu and Hokkaido, connecting the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean, is the Tsugaru Strait. September 2015 on Rohan’s calendar was reserved for attempting the crossing of the Tsugaru Strait. If the North Channel offers the coldest swim in Oceans Seven, Tsugaru offers the most powerful currents. Besides the current, there is one more thing to watch out for – sharks.  Rohan reached Japan two days before the scheduled date of attempt. It was to be on September 11 or 12, whichever proved ideal. Ahead of swim, he trained with a Mexican swimmer. On the day the swim was to start, the pilot asked Rohan which side he turned his face to, to breathe. Rohan found the question odd but he nevertheless replied: left. He completed the channel crossing in 10 hours, 13 minutes. “ I could have done it in eight hours or so. But for the last four hours I was at the same  spot, not making any gains due to the current,’’ he said. After the swim was over, Rohan asked the pilot why he inquired about the side swimmer turned to, to breathe. The pilot replied: that’s the side I should have the boat ladder on for you to grab and exit the water, should there be any hostile shark. The Strait of Gibraltar is the simplest of the Oceans Seven challenges. Rohan tried to book that for 2015 itself. “ But I didn’t have money,’’ he said.

Receiving the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award from Sri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India (Photo: courtesy Rohan More)

Post Tsugaru, Rohan’s Oceans Seven bid slowed down for want of resources. In September 2016, he joined Infosys, among India’s biggest IT companies. He was based at their campus in Pune. Roughly two months later, in November, he successfully swam across the Strait of Gibraltar, polishing off the distance in three hours, 56 minutes. Not long after the Gibraltar swim, Rohan was selected for the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, India’s highest award in adventure. He got it in the `water’ category. The award fetched him Rs 500,000, precious input for realizing the last challenge in Oceans Seven – the Cook Strait in New Zealand. Also of help was the financial assistance Infosys provides staffers attempting a challenging objective, which Rohan availed. Up till then, he had sustained the channel crossings from his own funds and contribution from friends. At this concluding phase, besides the money he got from the national award and the assistance from Infosys, Tata Trusts pitched in to help. As with some of the other swims, he went a month in advance to New Zealand to prepare and acclimatize. Separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, Cook Strait has a reputation for being unpredictable and rough. It has strong tidal flows with submarine ridges running off the coast further complicating the flow and turbulence. “ The beginning of the swim is in generally warm waters.  On the day I swam, about two to three hours into the swim, the cold waters of the Southern Ocean arrived with the current. That really hit! It is a game changer. On the whole given the channel’s capacity to be rough, I would say, I was lucky to have a good day,’’ Rohan said. Cook Strait is noted for its marine life. It gifted Rohan plenty of dolphins for company. “ You feel good having dolphins swim with you,’’ he said. It was a fine way to conclude Oceans Seven.

In May 2018, Rohan commenced training for a new project. He wants to take a shot at the 10 kilometer open water swimming competition held at the Olympics. “ I am currently able to cover the distance in one hour, 58 minutes. I need to get that down to one hour, fifty or fifty five; in that range, to qualify,’’ Rohan said. Will he make it? Time will tell. Rohan’s training continues to be mostly at the swimming pool in Pune. He still has no long term sponsors.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Rohan in Pune. Time taken to complete channel crossings are as mentioned by the interviewee.)

TODAY WE DIE A LITTLE

It is not always that you come across a book on Emil Zatopek. Richard Askwith’s biography of the great runner was both informative and a reminder of what humanity can do to the talent in its midst.

A trip home to Thiruvananthapuram is never complete without a visit to Modern Book Centre.

The last time I was there, the manager – he is the rare sort who recalls buyers’ interests – approached me with two books and said: I thought you may like these. I bought both. One of them was material I had waited long to come by.

In his heydays Emil Zatopek ruled the disciplines he competed in. He trained hard, set records, won medals at the Olympics. Richard Askwith’s book on Zatopek – Today We Die A Little – is recommended reading not because it is on a famous runner but because it sheds light on the life of a man we actually know little about. The research is extensive. The emergent picture is a composite of the athlete as remembered by those who knew him, including his wife and fellow athlete Dana Zatopkova, as well as material gathered by Askwith.

A national icon in erstwhile Czechoslovakia, information on Zatopek is colored by popular myth and Iron Curtain-propaganda. Rendered famous by his athletic achievements he unwittingly became a mascot for the socialist block’s ascent in sports. His global fame shielded him from the capacity of totalitarian state to censure. He spoke and acted freer than many of his countrymen, not all of it palatable to political masters. He was also a humanist. He helped others, shared what he had and even gifted one his Olympic medals to a visiting Australian runner. Sociable and easily accessed, those who engaged with Zatopek evolved their versions of what he said. Truth, in such situation, is hard to come by. Notwithstanding considerable research, there are information gaps in Askwith’s book. There is also conjecture at places, to bridge the deficiency. The goodness of this book is that it narrates, admitting the gaps despite sizable research done. In the process you get an idea of Zatopek the person and the context he lived in. It is the interaction between the two that led to the Zatopek we know and crucially, the Zatopek we don’t know as well – a man who eventually paid the price for speaking up. A colonel in the Czechoslovakian army, he was dismissed from military service and faulted by the very state he earned accolades for.

At the core of this predicament was Zatopek’s relationship with socialism. He appears to have agreed with it in principle but disagreed with the totalitarian approach implementing it. It is a relationship with two distinct halves. In the first, spanning the phases of upcoming athlete and Olympic hero, Zatopek periodically tests the state with his comments and actions but is spared reprimand. He is a hero; the people’s darling. In the second, spanning the phase past his athletic prime and deeds around Prague Spring (a season of counter revolutionary spirit in Czechoslovakia), the full weight of the system is brought to bear on him. It eventually cracks him. It is imagery that contrasts Zatopek’s famed capacity to endure on the track. But the pressure of state sponsored persecution is such. In totalitarian societies once you are tagged as wrong doer and word spreads, people avoid you. Not wishing others to suffer through association with him, Zatopek too kept to himself in that bleak phase.

His eventual rehabilitation posed its share of risk to personal reputation. It delineated the contradictions in his life, which as athlete focused on sport – or perhaps, as someone trusting sport to build a better world – he seems to have overlooked. The Communist regime was backdrop for his ascent to world stage and the Olympics. Yet he questioned government. He empathized with Prague Spring when it unfolded and criticized the Soviet military crackdown that followed. After his dismissal from the army and years spent in nondescript jobs, he was put on the path to rehabilitation by the same Communist apparatus. So what is the real Emil Zatopek? Critics felt he wasn’t adequately clear on which side his political loyalty lay. The doubting didn’t end there. Totalitarian regimes maintain a sea of informants. Leading athletes like Zatopek, were under surveillance at home and overseas. It was a time when you didn’t know who was watching who. After Communism’s collapse in Czechoslovakia, Zatopek was doubted of being a former informant. Askwith investigates the angle as best as he can. He finds no direct evidence to prove the allegations hurled at one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Perhaps the best way to put it would be – Zatopek’s life away from race track reflected the troubled reality of East Europe in the years following Second World War and leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This is a story of the athlete as human being. If you are picking up this book to learn how one of the world’s greatest runners trained, you may be disappointed. Without doubt the descriptions of his grueling training schedules come alive in the narrative. As do the races. Askwith’s account of both is detailed. But all that training in military boots, the running in forests and snow and the victories at the Olympics is already the stuff of legend. Many of Zatopek’s techniques – including interval training, which he is said to have pioneered – have since been improved upon, with those doing so, smashing the records he set. Pick up this book, if you wish to know what happened to Emil Zatopek the person. Crammed with insight it is not a quick read. You have to be patient.

The Cold War is over. Communism’s sphere of influence has shrunk. I read this book treating the predicament it portrayed as an example of what could happen when the same political system repeats in different garb. The correct perspective I believe, is to see it as pattern, an arrangement of power and authority diminishing individual freedom. Totalitarian regimes, propagandist media and witch hunts come in all political shades. The greatest impression Askwith’s book left on me was this: it made me wonder why Zatopek ran. What is it that he found in running? What is it that human beings still find in running? Something tells me that despite grand collectives like civilization, nation state, corporation, market and such, the individual would rather run away for a sense of existence.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

“ SWIMMING HELPED ME CHANNELIZE MY ENERGY’’

Shubham Vanmali (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Shubham Vanmali, 23, is a young swimmer from Navi Mumbai, currently attempting the Oceans Seven challenge in swimming. It consists of seven open water channel crossings worldwide. Shubham has done three, he has four to go. Earlier, he accomplished open water swimming’s Triple Crown – which involves crossing the English Channel, the Catalina Channel in California and completing the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim. Mid-June, Shubham was at his home in Nerul (a suburb of Navi Mumbai), setting up a business and getting a book authored by his parents to the stands. He spared time to talk to this blog. Excerpts:

What brought you to swimming and how did swimming help you tackle the learning disability you faced as a child?

It started when I was seven years old or so and was diagnosed with asthma.

The doctor suggested that swimming may help deal with asthma; that was how I started swimming. The learning disability part came later. Nobody knew of it till I was in ninth standard at school. I was getting below-average scores. I was scraping through in exams. That was when the movie Taare Zamein Par released. It caught my parents’ attention; everything looked similar to my state – the spelling mistakes, I could answer the questions my mother asked me at home but I couldn’t write the same properly during an exam. She was like – this might be the case. We went to Sion Hospital and from there to Drishti Centre, where the results came positive. I had dysgraphia, dyslexia and from before, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).  The diagnosis was an eye opener for everyone. My swimming was also getting affected by it. I wasn’t a good swimmer. I was quite average. My parents – my father played volleyball and my mother played kabaddi – had represented the state in their chosen sport. They were supportive. They never pushed me. They told me: keep swimming, you will eventually find your way. Even in studies, they didn’t push me.

For four to five years I meandered in swimming with no medals, not even a district level one. Then, I got a medal at the district level. That is considered late for a swimmer in India. Usually in swimming, if you don’t produce results in a couple of years, your parents change your sport. I don’t have a competitive nature. I used to enjoy water. I was a chubby kid. After I got that district level medal, my father started monitoring my diet and fitness.  In one month or so, I became really fit. I graduated from district to zonal level in swimming. Then they realized that as the distance to swim increased, the better I performed compared to others.  That was when we thought of open water swimming. It changed my life, providing me a huge amount of confidence. I had terrible stage fear. Now I have no problem talking to a crowd of people. Open water swimming changed my personality. If I had not come to swimming I would be still struggling with everything. That’s why I tell parents to get their children involved in sports. It will even help with academics because a child that is into sports is more alert.

Shubham with his coach, Gokul Kamat (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Could it have been any sport for you or was it the combination of swimming and water that worked well in your case?

It could have been any sport but I think swimming was perfect for me. It helped me channelize my energy. Plus swimming for ten hours plus is so challenging; it is very calming, quite like meditation – you are doing only one thing, you are not talking to anyone. That helped to calm me down.

Most people would consider swimming 10 or 20 laps in a pool as sign of endurance. You measure it in terms of kilometers and hours. Was there something about endurance which fascinated you, given as a swimmer you could have opted for the speed events if you wished to?

I used to wonder about that myself – I am not such a good pool swimmer but how come I became a good open water swimmer? Distance is not the difficult thing in this entire scenario. The ability to persist; sustain the pain for so long – that is the real challenge. There is a race in Bengal, which is a long one of 80 kilometers or so. But you swim with the current. As I see it, the real differentiator in open water swimming is not distance; it is the ability to sustain effort. The challenges you face in open water swimming range from current to sea creatures. There is jellyfish, there are sharks. A shark won’t do anything to you. But seeing a seven foot-shark below you in the water can mentally freak you out.

Cold water – that is another challenge. There is the issue of being in cold water for long. It is alright if you are in cold water for an hour. But maintaining body temperature for long and ensuring alongside that you don’t swim so fast as to tire and invite hypothermia – that is tricky. So distance is not the problem. Once you can swim at a stretch for six hours, your aerobic capacity is good enough to tackle long distances.  The game starts when it comes to sustaining this in open water, in the middle of the sea. The body has the ability to adapt. The game depends on where your head is in the equation.

You grew up in Navi Mumbai, a township that has at present, a small community of open water swimmers. The Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim is often featured in local media. Did the availability of this community help you in embracing open water swimming?

I did my first Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim in 2014. At that time, the community was not in place. I got into open water swimming because of my father. He had grown up reading about Mihir Sen and Taranath Shenoy. When he asked me whether I wanted to try it, I said yes. I was however imagining differently. When he mentioned English Channel, I said okay because I was thinking more of the chance to travel overseas. When I reached there, I understood what I was getting into! Besides my father who nudged me into open water swimming, what has helped me continue the sport is the global community of open water swimmers. It is so small and great at once; the people in it are amazing.

Young man and the sea (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

Let me take you back to the boy with learning disability you once were. What sort of mind are we talking of here – is it a restless mind that requires a lot of stimuli like a sport perhaps, to calm down and focus or is there something in that state of mind which lends itself naturally to pursuits like long distance swimming?

It depends from person to person. In my particular case, I suspect I made my condition into an advantage. If I am doing something, I get easily distracted. My mind would be somewhere else. In open water swimming, an activity in which progress to destination is anyway time-consuming, if you sense every second go by – that can be crazy. I, on the other hand, was prone to being naturally distracted, thinking of other things in my head. That worked to my advantage.

Many open water swimmers from Mumbai begin with the Dharamtar-Gateway of India swim. You have done this a few times; you have also swum elsewhere in the world. How bad is the water quality here and how do you cope with it?

(Laughs) It is unfortunately something you have to put up with.

I look at it from a different point of view. Over here, swimming that distance is not a big deal at all. Believe me – it’s easy. I am the only swimmer as yet, who has done Dharamtar-Gateway in both directions. Somewhere in between, the tide helps you. I am not taking it away from anyone but Dharamtar-Gateway is kind of easy compared to other such swims. I had a hydrographer in my team; so I know what I am talking of. The tough portion of this swim is in the middle near an island, where the current changes. But you do it. The difficult thing is not the distance. The first time I did this swim, I told myself: I am not getting into that water ever again. The reason I swim it is for the mental part – the irritation of being in such water. The water is salty, conditions are humid and your throat feels nasty from the water going in. Your throat swells up and you have difficulty eating for a week after that. It hurts a lot. Mentally, the swim frustrates you. That training helps me in my swims elsewhere. Aside from the cold, waters elsewhere are a pleasure. The difference in pollution levels is huge. I swam around Manhattan in the US. The president of the local swimming association told me: let me warn you, one out of every six swimmers gets some bacterial infection because the city’s waste comes into these waters. I saw the water and I was like, this is nowhere near what I have swum in; so it’s not going to be a problem at all. So yeah, the difference is huge (laughs).

Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

When did the Oceans Seven project start and what triggered it?

It started in 2014. Our first goal was the English Channel and later, the Strait of Gibraltar. We wanted to give these two a shot and then later, we got to know of the Oceans Seven. I wished to do all the seven. It isn’t for an award, it isn’t competition – it is just something I love to do. I love being out there and testing myself.  At some points of the journey, I have been close to the breaking point; even close to death. But the adrenalin rush keeps me going. So far I have done three of the swims involved. There are four more to go (for more on Shubham and the Oceans Seven, please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/05/30/shubham-and-the-oceans-seven/).

Are you following a schedule?

We had a schedule for this year. But then, it has run into a problem because of my shoulder injury. We are currently in discussions with my doctors to find the best way ahead. We need to find out how long it will take to heal and then train my way back to the levels of before. Every time I return from a break, I have to work my way back up from zero. I have been in this situation multiple times. Swimming is a skill and you have to repeat a skill over and over again to drill it in. When you lose the feel of water, return to form is time-consuming. The time it takes to get back to where you were depends on your mental state. It is all in your head. If I am calm and focused, it takes me a month to reach the point where I can start working on my aerobic capacity again.

When you are on the verge of launching off into one of your long swims, what do you base your decision on – your physical fitness as ensured by the training you put in or how good you feel in the head?

It’s both. It’s both mind and body; I don’t attempt with a deficit in either. I don’t want to go in with the doubt: what if? I don’t go in half prepared and once I commit to a swim, I give it everything. Also remember – these channel crossings are a big deal for me. There is a lot of money involved in each of these attempts. My parents support me. I don’t have any sponsors.

What has been your experience with sponsors?

I understand the sponsor’s perspective of what I am doing – it is not a spectator sport. It is not entertainment. It is not something you would wish to watch on TV. However I am still trying to engage people.  For example, we have just launched a book in Marathi, to be soon followed by one in English. The sole purpose of the book is to help parents understand how to help their children should they be suffering from dyslexia. I hope that also puts the focus on what I have done so far, coming as I do from a childhood affected by dyslexia. With sponsors, you have to provide them a return on investment. Right now, if a sponsor invests in me, I have something to give back – I have my book, I have my YouTube videos, I have my Instagram account. Earlier, I had nothing to give back. But now, I do. Incidentally, India is known globally in open water swimming. People overseas know Indians as endurance swimmers.

The book in Marathi, written by Shubham’s parents, Deepika and Dhananjay Vanmali. Soon to be published in English as well, the book tells their journey with a child suffering from learning disability and at the same time, wishing to excel in sports. It also serves as a primer for those venturing into open water swimming, providing the contact details for relevant swimming associations here and overseas.

One of the things you notice nowadays is how Indians seem to fare better in endurance as opposed to disciplines demanding speed or qualities of that sort.  From where do you think is this fascination for endurance, coming?

Indians are good at enduring suffering.  We can endure a lot. We have been brought up that way. We know what struggle and pain is. That gives us raw material to work with when it comes to endurance sports. But having said that, I must add – we are making good progress in other attributes like speed.  There are good sports training facilities – a couple of them in Bengaluru for instance – which have come up. So I think the game is going to change.

What is the ideal sponsorship that works for you? Is it one entailing return on investment or is it something cast on the lines of a grant, wherein the burden of investment return isn’t there?

I would say I prefer a company that is looking for a return on investment. That gives structure to the whole deal. It makes it sensible for others also to get involved.

In the swimming you did so far, which was the most challenging stretch?

The swim around Angel Island, off San Francisco was quite tough.  The current here is so powerful that at some points I made no progress. I was swimming but not covering any distance. There was also the issue of being thrown off course and on one occasion I found myself being borne by the strong current towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were times when the team contemplated calling off the swim because I was well past the longest time taken for the swim. That is unusual for me as I am a fast swimmer – I hold the fastest time among Asians swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar; 16 kilometers in three hours, 16 minutes. The Angel Island swim was roughly the same distance but I had been more than seven hours in the water. Luckily I had trained earlier in these waters and knew when the current would change. I just had to hold out. Slowly the current changed and I ended up finishing the swim.

During all this I had no idea how much time I had taken. I would have my feed (nutrition offered from support boat, which must be had without touching the boat) but there wasn’t much conversation. There is no point asking for the time because if there is bad news in it, you end up getting very disappointed. It can shatter your morale.

Do you ever inquire about the time while you swim?

I generally don’t. I prefer not knowing what’s going on. You are sustaining so much pain and then suddenly you get some bad news, in an instant you will drop off.

From the Angel Island swim, off San Francisco (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

In the case of a marathon, it is very common to find runners looking at their watches to know the time while running. Why is it so difficult in the case of a marathon swim? How is exhaustion in long distance swimming, which engages the whole body, different from how you feel exhausted while running?

It is way beyond the conventional description of exhaustion.

After swimming long distance, you can feel every single muscle in your body hurting. While swimming, the water is so cold that you don’t get as much inflammation in the body as you would in warm temperatures.  You also don’t get the palpitation that runners do. We don’t end up breathing heavily as in running. What we feel is pain. It is an experience of pain because all the joints and muscles have been continuously working. Pain is what we cope with.

Have you tried to transfer the endurance you gained from swimming to any other sport within the family of endurance sports?

No. I am a bad runner. Anything other than swimming – I really suck at it.

Because you are a good swimmer, a triathlon wouldn’t attract you?

No, because the swimming part in a triathlon is very small. I may be able to do cycling. But running is a big no for me. I have my thoughts of doing something very extreme and pushing my body to the point where I wonder whether I can sustain it or not. There is much for me to explore in swimming. The number of swims I have done so far is a decent number as regards open water swimming projects. But in places like the US, there is a lot more to do. There are swims, which people have tried and failed. I want to try those swims; swims of the Angel Island sort.

Shubham; from the Catalina Channel swim. Swimmer can be seen in the water, kayaker keeps watch (Photo: courtesy Dhananjay Vanmali)

You spoke of your shoulder injury. How did you get that?

The shoulder injury goes back to the Catalina swim in California. While training for that a tendon got pinched. I still managed the swim – it took me 10 hours, 42 minutes to do it. This was in 2015. After that I took a break for a year. I then went to attempt swimming across the North Channel in Ireland but that didn’t go as expected. After 13 hours in the water, I became hypothermic. My body grew bloated. We had a swimmer – he was a good friend – overseeing my safety in the water. I lifted my head to see ahead and noticed that only 3-4 kilometers remained to complete the crossing of the North Channel. But no sooner than I looked up, I blacked out. If you lose a body in the open sea, it is next to impossible to get it back. I started to sink. Luckily, my friend pulled me out in the nick of time. It was tough for him to do that because I had bloated up in the water due to excessive work and become heavy. I wasn’t in my senses for 30-40 minutes.  North Channel is the coldest of the channel crossings constituting Oceans Seven.

I took a break after this swim. I tried to attempt it again but the weather was bad and there was no good window of opportunity available. Once the break following the North Channel attempt got over, I resumed my swimming. But the shoulder injury came back. I swam Gateway-Dharamtar. I was doing well. There comes a time towards the end of this swim when the water becomes really calm. I swam fast at this stage. Then at a certain point, my shoulder made a cracking sound and thereafter it began hurting. I was now struggling to swim. I stopped using my right arm. I was set to finish that swim in five to six hours, which is a really good time for a distance of 35 kilometers. But I ended up taking seven hours. I was very disappointed. We consulted doctors. There were two tendons involved in the damage. To reduce the pain, I had to take an injection to the shoulder joint. That was the state in which I proceeded to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim.

At Cabrillo Beach, California (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page)

You mentioned how supportive the open water swimming community has been. What would you tell a fellow open water swimmer stepping out from India to try big projects like you did; is the presence of this community of fellow enthusiasts comforting?

It is comforting, very comforting.

When I went to swim the North Channel in Ireland, I was all by myself. The crew for my swim, who I had assembled myself, backed out at the last moment. So, there was this lady swimmer – her name was Ruth McGuigan, she was captain of the Irish water polo team – she agreed to be my crew. After I was pulled out of the water following that incident of hypothermia during the North Channel attempt, she took me home. She told her husband that I would be staying with them for a while till I recovered; they even told me to stay there in case I wished to explore the possibilities of a second attempt. I stayed with them for almost a month. They helped me a lot. They treated me like their own son. The water polo team she was part of, they were open water swimmers too. They went on to set a new record for crossing the North Channel in the relay format. Ruth helped me cope with my failed attempt at the North Channel. She told me that the next time I come to Ireland to try the North Channel, I should stay with her. The other incident was – there was this American swimmer who completed North Channel a couple of days after my attempt. He became a good friend. He told me that when I come to San Francisco for the Angel Island swim, I should stay with him. He took me in just like that.

We are tutored to define our world in terms of the coordinates of our origin; the language we speak, the place we hail from, the culture we belong to etc. How does it feel to have your world mapped in terms of a shared craziness, a shared passion?

It feels amazing. It is liberating (laughs).

I am really fortunate to have such a thing in my life.

I don’t take it for granted at all.

There are so many things I learnt doing this, than just swimming. For example, Steve Walker – the person I stayed with in San Francisco – is not just a successful swimmer; he is successful in life too. Steve has done six of the seven channel crossings that constitute Oceans Seven. He runs a few IT companies.  He used to drop me every morning to the beach. San Francisco is an expensive city to stay in. I would have gone bankrupt had I footed the bill myself. I used to travel to Steve’s office. It was an amazing place where people actually liked to work; they were willing to help. That is not the case over here in India. I learnt much from these visits. There was this club called South End Rowing Club in San Francisco; I was a guest there. There are not many Indian open water swimmers in San Francisco. The club was quite helpful.  There are very few instances in open water swimming when I found people being terribly competitive. There is competition but it does not get carried around everywhere.

I think part of the reason for this is that it is a community with a lot of grown-ups and consequently an element of maturity.  In the world of running, the ultramarathon crowd typically tends to be older than those running the regular marathon. It is the same in the case of endurance swimming. Looking back, maybe that’s also why a youngster like me got treated so well! You feel welcomed. It is a chilled community that does not tend to judge. Had it been composed of only young people, I suspect it would have been very competitive.

Shubham (far right) with his family; (from left) his sister Siddhi, who used to be a competitive swimmer in her school days, Dhananjay and Deepika (This photo was downloaded from Shubham’s Facebook page).

In India, swimming is still a niche sport. What do you think can change the trend and bring more people into swimming?

First of all – more swimming pools.

Second, it is not just enough to have swimming pools; you must have pools that you can train in.

At many of the pools we have, access is only for the members of that given club and the swimming is chaotic with people going up-down, left-right.  In contrast, a pool like the one at Fr Agnels in Navi Mumbai, where I train – that pool is meant for training. The swimmers swim in a circular pattern with each lane segregated on the basis of swimmer’s speed. It is not a pool to goof around in. It is one of the rare pools in India. We need more such pools to train in. Once that training environment sets in, the sport will pick up and we will begin producing better swimmers in the lower age groups. Right now what you are seeing is that a lot of swimmers come into the lower age groups but only very few sustain the effort to reach open category. Many fade away due to personal disinterest and disinterest caused by the environment in which they swim. We also need more experienced, educated coaches.  Further, openness to try counselors and psychologists will help. I have been going to a sports psychologist for years. She has helped me change.

Finally, we need more patience at the parents’ end. That can make a big impact. Indian parents lack patience. When you reach the tenth standard you are forced to focus completely on academics, you give up other interests. The thing is – once you take a break at that stage, it is difficult to regain the momentum. People try to get back after tenth standard, they find it mentally tough. And even if you succeed, you hit another wall in the twelfth standard, which is the next point of reckoning in academic terms.  I would prefer a flexible education pattern. I wish we could borrow from how schools and colleges overseas manage talent in sports. If you don’t start seriously at the college level in sports, it is difficult to build it up later.

Indians – parents included – are prone to ask: what will you get out of this? You have gone into open water swimming in a committed way. How will you answer the classic Indian question?

I know I will not get my bread and butter out of swimming. I am working on something else, which will address my need for income.  I swim because I love to swim, because I am passionate about it. Swimming has helped me be a person who can have a perspective in life.

Your personal preference is to keep your sport as your bread and butter or avoid doing so?

I would like to avoid having the sport I love as my livelihood. That would make it a job. I don’t want it to be a job.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)