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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)