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Thirty-four years ago August 22, when I became 16th Indian to swim English Channel

By Harsh Thakor 

In 1988 on August 22nd, I became the 16th Indian to swim the English Channel. On 75th anniversary of Independence in Sport perhaps India has done itself prouder at the English Channel than anyone else. Above all the Indian woman have qualitatively overshadowed the Indian men at the Channel, as well as many underdogs from the lower echelons of society have transcended this barrier.
How wonderful it would be if the long distance swimming potential of the Indian people is untapped with regular training camps, even in seas and rivers. India can be proud of being one of the finest performers at the Channel, with a record better than swimmers from any South Asian country or African nation. I regret that the majority of the community of Channel swimmers was not felicitated properly, by the nation or state. Perhaps India should emulate the example of the ex-Socialist countries, in integrating sports culture at the very grassroots.
I regret that I can hardly name Channel swimmers who were an integral part of a revolutionary movement. How heartening it would be if Channel swimmers could be absorbed into the revolutionary movement or speak out against imperialism or fascism. Maybe clubs should be formed worldwide amongst progressive activists to promote spirit of adventure and conquest.
It is not only about the distance but confronting the bitter cold and the most powerful currents. I can never forget the gruelling hours I spent in acclimatizing myself to the conditions before swimming it, like all the Channel Swimmers. The feat literally takes mental resilience or tenacity to it's highest scale of intensity.
Till today 1881 swimmers have swum the English Channel, with 63 percent male, and 37 percent female. Overall 2,428 solo swim shave been accomplished.
There is symmetry in the mindset, or mental resilience of revolutionaries striving for liberation, with the task of swimming the English Channel. Revolutionary experiences the same twists and turns as a swimmer when crossing the Channel as well as traverses tortuous paths as hazardous as the choppiest seas of the English Channel. For almost all the period of my being wedded to training I remained influenced by Marxist ideology and part of revolutionary organisations.
Less people have swum the English Channel than climbed Mount Everest. Only one in every twelve who attempt to cross it, succeed. It is ironic that many an Olympic swimmer has failed when attempting it.
A channel swimmer is not the most talented, physically strong or athletic person but one who can simply challenge the most fatal hurdles However laboriously he has practiced the actual swim brings out the biggest test of will power and inner spirit..In many ways the swim reminds you of the course of life itself, confronting the various barriers. One moment you are cruising along effortlessly like a swan caressing the water, the next moment you felt you were almost imprisoned by the stormy waves or currents. There are no set training methods for swimming the English Channel or prescribed diet. The workouts and diet have to be diagnosed in accordance with the unique characteristic s of each swimmer. To some it is ideal to practice in the cold water of the rivers and the lakes, to others the swimming pool. Similarly some swimmers are more suited to long distance training, while others are suited to interval training, where sets are broken.
But on the chilly morning that I first dipped my body into the Channel, I realised that for a boy from the subcontinent, it was going to be a battle with the temperature. After a few hours in the water even the best swimmers become confused and are unable to respond to simple questions from the Escort pilot, lips turn blue, bodies shake uncontrollably.
In history I am amazed how people have overcome all odds to achieve this glory, be it it a physical handicap, disease or a psychological trauma. It is most important the reasons for which every swimmer swum the Channel, which could be like chapters of a book.
I was later tutored by Mr Kishan Singh of P.M. Hindu Bath and Mr. Jadhav at the Bombay Gymkhanas. I had increased my workouts to about 10 to 11km daily. They would be divided into sessions only kicking, only pulling (Only using Arms) and then swimming intervals of 400 metres or 200 metres each. I qualified for the Maharashtra State finishing 7th but couldn't qualify for the Nationals. I had high stamina but I had some stroke defects. According to my coach the power in my pull was ineffective.
My debut in sea swimming took place in 1985, swimming Sunk Rock to Gateway of India in 51 mins. Although not so successful in competitive swimming my gruelling training conjured up my reserves of endurance to successfully complete swimming marathons in the sea.
I now wanted to cross Uran to Gateway of India. (An island 12 km from Mumbai.) I logged continuous stretches of 6,000 metres twice a day as practice. On the day I cruised along to swim in the then record of 2 hrs 56 mins. It was a most peaceful swim and I felt much more at ease with myself than in the Swimming pool the waves simply seemed to pull me along.
The following year in 1986-1987 I was unsuccessful in competitive swimming but in the I.N.S. Hamla to Dadar Chowpatty Swimming race I had one of my major personal triumphs. In the pool I did workouts of 5 km, twice a day. I also did an 8 km swim at a stretch. I finished the 35 Km.course in 10hrs 58 mins finishing 11th. For most of the race I hardly knew where I was placed and for a prolonged period I was simply awaiting the finish. The guide kept indicating the Finish was around the Corner. However my willpower and determination persisted and I simply trugged along like a machine.
I now believed I could swim the English Channel. As a trial I did the 35 km stretch from Dharamtar to Gateway of India. I completed it in 9 hrs 44 mins, being under-prepared. This was like a practice swim for the Channel. I simply cruised along with ease.
The Following months I logged 12 km a day in y my 50-metre pool. I had no doubts about my stamina. My main objective in crossing the Channel was to prove my worth to the world and make a name.
My coach Kishan Singh and I arrived in June. My mother was to come later. At first I found the temperature of the Channel waters unbearable. I simply shivered and took a long time to recover. Gradually I could stay for 20 mins, then an hour and eventually I could do 3-6 hour workouts. (After a month) I would simply blaze in the water and can never forget how I would swim from one end of Dover to the cliff on the other side. Every half an hour or one hour I would take a feed. Through maintaining my diet my mother played a big role in my training fitness. She simply took care of my diet cooking my meals.
As a preliminary I participated in the Lake Zurich International Marathon 26 km race. Here I simply swam with the utmost determination. For long periods I felt the end was coming and I seemed to be wearing down. However that inner courage won the day for me and finally I was relieved to see the end. My mental strength won the day for me.
On the same day as my Zurich Lake swim two Indian Swimmers created a record becoming the youngest ever boy and youngest asian female respectively. Abhijeet Rao at 11 years became the youngest ever to cross the Channel, while Naina Malhapurkar became the youngest Asian. On the same day as me Rajaram Ghag, a polio-affected victim was to attempt the Channel. A day before my attempt a major tragedy had occurred Renata Agomdi, a Brazilian Champion who had just won the Capri-Naple International Marathon died of hypothermia. The cause was that her body had not acclimatised itself to the Channel waters. After 9 hrs she was lifted out dead. It was one of swimming sport's saddest moments.
I was 99% sure I would cross the Channel. I understood my endurance and reserves of physical and mental strength. On August 22nd I started my expedition. For the first 6 hours I was cruising. I could see the cliffs of Calais and the end seemed a formality. However then a storm broke out. With determination I chugged along like a machine. I was determined to fight the battle till the very end like a soldier fighting to the very end in a war. I had not only to tap the highest reserves of my physical energy but also my mental determination. After 12 -13hrs I felt the end was almost there but I was battling with the waters. Upto 14 hrs I was still fully conscious. However after that my mind was slowly going into a state of semi-unconsciousness. The end was just round the corner. After 15 hrs 2 mins I rolled over the Calais beach crawling not realising the end had come. My mother eventually told me the swim was over and affectionately I kissed her. But for her care I would never have made it. After that I was dragged into the boat where I simply feel asleep. On getting up after an hour my mother informed me I had made it. More than the physical battle I had won the spiritual battle.
I attribute my success not just to my final months of training in the Channel or before in the Swimming pool, but to the vast reservoirs of endurance I built up training for competitive swimming in 1984 and 1985.
I had become the 1st ever member of Pransukhlal Mafatlal Hindu Bath, to achieve the feat. Stalwarts like the former national swimming champion Tingoo Khatau failed on 3 occasions’ I was the 432nd person Indian to achieve the feat. The same year the world long distance champion Renata Agondi perished, succumbing to the water temperature. I was felicitated by the PM Hindu bath in December, with cricketer Sandeep Patil distributing the awards. I was also the 1st ever student of Elphinstone college and Cathedral and John Connon school to swim the Channel.
Mihir Sen
The greatest memories I have of swimmers in my time is of Rupali Repale triumphing inspite of having such unhurried preparation and poor conditions,Rajaram Ghag who suffered from polio ,Abhijeet Rao who accomplished this feat at such a young age of 11 and of the record breaking swims of Bijoy Jain and Anita Sood.More than the sheer speed I had respect for enduring the vagaries of the channel for long durations. Rajaram Ghag’s story would have been an epic, emerging from such a poor, working class background. I can’t forget the sheer power he exuded in the water, being a mascot of the handicapped sportsman. Of the foreign swimmers my greatest heroes were Phil Rush from New Zealand who completed a 3 way swim in 38 hours and Yagasish from Hungary who complete it at the oldest age ever of 65 years. I was deeply agonized by the accidental death of Rennata Agondi from Brazil, who inspite of being a world champion swimmer, succumbed due to not being acclimatised with the cold water. Masudur Rehman Baidya with amputated legs crossed the Channel in 1997, which was an achievement of unparalleled proportions. Having lost both his legs, knee downwards in a train accident at the tender age of 11, instead of resigning himself in discouragement, he decided to give his life a 360 degree turn.
I would strongly feel that it was the spirit of the service or identification with revolutionary Marxism that enabled me to completely tap the reservoirs of my potential.  When I daily swim 5km I get a sensation of resurrecting the experience. Even in time when integrating with social movements, swimming played an integral part in my day to day life.

Legacy of Mihir Sen

In June we commemorated the 25th death anniversary of Mihir Sen. For India Mihir Sen was the pioneer in this expedition, when the feat was near impossible. It is sad that there is no official biography written about Mihir Sen’s life and what motivated him to swim the Channels. Few stories are more touching than what drove the sheer spirit of Sen to attempt it. It illustrated the ultimate spiritual transformation in a person. It is fascinating that Sen wished to combat the colonial supremacy and prove that Indians were as capable as the Britishers. In his days scientific training had hardly developed to the calibre of later times for Long distance swimming.Mihir Sen's achievements tower above everybody's as well as Aarti Saha.To me his achievements are on the scale of an Olympic Gold medalist.If you lived in his times one would almost consider it inconceivable to swim the English Channel. similar to a soldier going to fight a battle on no man's land Sen was an ambassador against colonial racism which enabled Indians for the 1st time to use sports clubs. I felt very sad that he was given such harsh treatment by the CPM govt.,unlike how filmstars or cricketers are given. I wish a biography was scripted on Mihir Sen. Quoting the legend: “I had undertaken this perilous swim not to gain fame or trophies but to prove once again to the world that Indians are no longer afraid. To the youth of India, this triumph will have dramatically demonstrated that nothing is impossible for them — all they have to do is believe and persevere and the goal will be theirs!”
Quoting his daughter Supriya: “His motive for swimming the seven seas was primarily political. Being a young nationalist of uncommonly strong views and unorthodox ambition, he wanted to show the world what Indians are made of, to set for young Indians an example of courage and to tell them that one of the best things to do with life is to risk it. In this way, he hoped to prepare them for what he saw as their destiny.”
Sen wasn’t a prodigal swimming talent nor was he interested in the sport till late in his youth. Born in a family with modest means in West Bengal, Sen had completed his preliminary education in Cuttack and had gone to United Kingdom to get a Degree in Law thanks to some financial support from the well wisher of the family. It was here that he first came across a news clipping about Florence Chadwick swimming the English Channel in 1950. Sen drew his inspiration from her.
After completing his law degree, Mihir went to England to study law.He hardly had enough money but he made it. While he was there he even worked as a night porter at a railway station to keep himself afloat.
Sen had not even learnt swimming by then but the thought of the adventure and the urge to do something that no Indian had done before spurred him on. He took freestyle lessons at YMCA and managed to achieve that feat in 27th September, 1958, on his second attempt.
It was not full stop for Mihir Sen, who went on to conquer all the seven seas including the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal, the Dardanelles Strait, the Palk Strait and Bosphorous Strait.
When he returned to India after his English Channel feat, he started a movement to permit clubs to allow all Indians inside after he was denied entry into the same clubs. We must salute Mihir Sen for successfully launching a crusade for Indians to be permitted to use clubs. After practicing Criminal Law at the Calcutta High Court, he started his own business. Mihir's company became India's second largest silk exporter.
When Jyoti Basu gave him an offer of a post to join the CPM in exchange for a high-profile government post, Mihir not only refused him but contested against him as an independent candidate. As a result they targeted his business and it eventually had to shut down. He had to file for bankruptcy and nobody came to his aid. His bank accounts were frozen and all his money was confiscated. It caused Mihir to start suffering from dementia at the age of 50.
Sen tragically died from a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease at the age of 66 in June 1997.
It is most regretful that even a left party alienated such a superstar. I am saddened that the true Communist revolutionaries could not win his sympathy or draw him towards them.

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