At an age when kids can barely walk, Bhakti Sharma had started swimming.
Bhakti was born in Mumbai and brought up in Udaipur. Passion for swimming runs in her veins. Bhakti’s mother is a National Level swimmer. She started teaching Bhakti when she was just two and half years old.
I was afraid. But the good thing about learning at such an early age was that 4ft and 6 ft deep is all the same to a kid. I have been swimming for as long as I can remember.
But things didn’t come easy to her. Bhakti could not continue swimming for long – there was lack of good swimming pools in the vicinity and as she started growing up there were a lot of societal constraints she had to face for being a girl swimmer. Eventually she had to quit swimming. But not the one to give up easily, Bhakti joined another sport, she took up karate and started training for black belt. But this also didn’t last for long as her coach left for his hometown. After taking up two sports and not being able to continue either, Bhakti would have easily given up had it not been for her mother. Bhakti says, “ My mother was very clear about one thing, either do something 100% or don’t do it.
After that there was no looking back. Bhakti worked hard and started swimming again. She went on to compete at state and National level championships. It might be easy to say that she had all the time to do it and might have not taken her education seriously, but one would be surprised to hear that she scored 84% and 87% in class 10th and 12th respectively. “It was difficult to manage studies and swimming together since I was training for almost 5 hrs a day. Swimming was never an excuse to not study. ”, Bhakti says.
Bhakti has many firsts to her credit and in most of the competitions she took part she was the youngest participant. She recollects an interesting incident from one of competitions, “Since I had won the first place in district, I qualified for state level and I was standing on the block for my first event. I was 8 years old and it was a 200 metres event. The timekeeper looked at me and asked my mom, ‘ye pura to kar legi?'(will she complete the race?)”
She completed the swim, well in the given time.
Open water swim
Bhakti first ventured in open water when she was fourteen years old. Her mother told her about a long distance sea swim which takes place between Uran port to Gateway of India. It was a good change for her from pools. She started training by doing long hours in pools.
“I started training in winters, and temperatures here go to 5-6 degrees. The authorities at the pool that I used to practice in allowed me to practice during winters and didn’t shut the pool. My mother and I used to unlock the gates, get inside, lock it and we used to be the only ones in the entire campus. Me in the water and my mother walking outside on the deck. And I started swimming for 3-4 hours nonstop.”
For someone who never had professional training, the challenges are numerous. You become your biggest motivator. The ride was never smooth for Bhakti, she faced failure and then also learnt to stand against it.
“While I was doing competitive swimming, I felt like giving up a lot of times, because I was giving my best but was not getting up to the level of those swimmers from Maharashtra and South India. I felt like a failure.
I built up my stamina in the most unprofessional way. I have never had professional coaching for long distance swimming. So we went by logic. I started with however long I can swim at a stretch and started pushing myself every time to do a little more.”
Once Bhakti tasted the freedom of open water swimming, sky was the limit for her. At present Bhakti claims to be the youngest swimmer in the world and first swimmer from Asia to have swam in all four oceans(India, Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic) covering eight different water bodies (seas and channels).
Crossing the English Channel
She also belongs to the only mother-daughter duo to have swam together across English Channel.
The story of how English Channel happened is quite interesting, Bhakti narrates,
“Mother daughter duo just happened incidentally. A girl from Jodhpur came to us saying that she wanted to swim the English Channel and wanted me and my mother to train her. When we saw her preparation and mental strength, we advised her to do a relay swim first before going solo. Then she had the trouble of finding enough members for the relay team. I volunteered and we were still looking for more people as two people swimming puts more pressure on each swimmer. It is almost like doing a solo. So then I told my mom that she should do it.
The idea of me sitting on the boat shouting at her to swim harder excited me. Since she had been doing that to me for so many years
That is how we made a team of three females and started training. My mother was 45 years old at that time. We did a 24 hours swim in the pool in the month of December to test ourselves. Then one more swim in Mumbai before we went for the channel swim. We actually failed at the first attempt after swimming for nine hours. And that’s the first and last swim where I had asked to quit. The weather was bad, sea was extremely choppy and we were continuously throwing up.”
This was the second time when Bhakti had crossed the English Channel, she had done it earlier during a solo swim when she was just 16 year old.
Awarded by the President
In the year 2012, Bhakti received Tenzing Norgey from the President for her achievements.
“It was a mixed feeling. They make you rehearse the entire event a day before sans the President. So you have already experienced half the excitement. They tell you how to receive the award, so you actually hold the trophy a day before and they take it back.
During the same ceremony, Yuvraj Singh received the Arjuna Award. Also the highlight for me was, before the President hands over the trophy, your introduction is read out explaining why you are receiving this award, so when my intro was being read, there was an “Ohhhh” from the audience when they heard about what all swims I had done.”
Swimming in the Ice
Currently, Bhakti is preparing for her swim in Antarctica and is trying to raise money for it. She is also supporting an NGO for children in Rajasthan with this swim. Without a manager or a professional coach, Bhakti is a one woman army who is doing everything possible to make her dreams come true. Her only support is her parents who have been with her since the beginning. Talking about her schedule, Bhakti says, “Right now I am preparing for the swim so the day starts with a two hour swim, then physiotherapy to recover from shoulder injuries. Lot of reading through the day, lot of mails to send for sponsorships, and gym in the evening. I am currently the athlete, the manager arranging logistics for the swim, the PR person, and the agent trying to get sponsors.”
Unlike other sports, swimming stands out in a very different way and women have to face innumerable challenges when it comes to making a career in the sport. Bhakti had to quit the sport once when she was growing up. But she had the courage to get back to it again. Not everyone is as strong as her. “And yes swimming is not really a celebrated sport in India. I have seen a lot of my fellow swimmer girls quit as they started growing old due to these costume issues, girls used to come from Govt schools without proper costumes and I used to see how difficult it was for them.” She says.
Her dream is to make sure that open water swimming gets the exposure it deserves. If her life were to be a movie, she describes her favorite scene to be the one, “where I am in a lake or a sea with at least 10 Indian girls swimming with me and not in the pool. And I’d just be there lying on my back, afloat on the water with the waves cradling me in their arms.”
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