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Sunday, September 05, 2021


By Harsh Thakor 



In many ways when I swam I resurrected the spirit of Mihir Sen, in a different era. So did my contemporary swimmers like the polio handicapped Rajaram Ghag, 11 year old Abhijeet Rao and 14 year old Naina Mahalapurkar, who too crossed it. Sea swimming champion swimmers failed like Dharamtar-to Gateway record holder Manoj Erande, and World champion Renatta Agondi who tragically perished when attempting it. Unlike the others I was influenced by revolutionary ideology around 4 years earlier or what was morally Marxism -Leninism -Mao thought. The roots of the endurance or reserves of Stamina built up were through training for swimming pool inter collegiate competitions and State meet from 1984-85 where I trained between 8-11 kms daily. The 1st genuine flash I made in sea waters was when swimming for Uran to Mumbai. in January 1986 in a technical record time of 2 hrs 56 mins. In February 1987 I swam the 32 km INS Hamla to Dadar Chowpatty Sea race securing 10th place, in a time of 10 hours 58 mins. It is then that I realized that I possessed the mental resilience or fortitude to combat the most challenging barriers in sea swimming. I can't forget how in so many junctures I felt the end was there, but it just did not come. That swim untapped my inner power as never before. In 1988 when swimming Dharamtar to Gateway of India I cruised home effortlessly in 9 hours 44 mins, with the tide completely in my favour. For swimming the channel for three months I continuously logged distances of around 11 km, chugging the swimming pool water with utmost consistency. In the Channel it too me around 2 weeks to acclimatize myself to get into the thick of the proceedings However once I was toned I felt like a ship revived and would cruise up and along the Dover coast for 3-6 hour swims. In those practice session s I virtually drew the ultimate reservoirs of my energy. And immunised my body to bear the pain. In the actual swim I cruised till midway but in the 2nd half fought a virtual battle with the waves to touch the coast of Calais, semi-conscious. I felt the subtle difference between facing the actual battle and the practice sessions. Ironic I never knew that I had touched the end, and my hands were still moving on the shore. I would not have words to adequately thank my mother for her support in preparations or in the Channel swim, who finally pulled me into the boat.


After having excelled in academics at 13+ in Birmingham in England, I had a setback after returning to India, hardly faring too well in matriculation. I topped my class in the final year of Eversfield preparatory school and got admission into the Solihull Public School. After hardly doing well the previous year I literally rose from dire straits, similar to triumphing in a channel swim. My thirst for achieving excellence first in Channel swimming was to avenge the reversal in academics, and redeem myself. Arguably the inability to adjust to India at such a crucial age and parental conflicts contributed to this.


To participate in club and inter-collegiate events I trained 4,000metres twice a day. I have strong memories of logging 220 laps of the Willingdon Swimming pool in Mumbai in the morning. I would again workout in the evening at the Bombay Gymkhanna. I would swim sets of 1,000 metres 4 times within 1and a half hours. I secured 3rd place in the Inter-collegiate swimming in 400 metres Freestyle and 100 metres. I also attained 3rd place in the C.C.I Western India Championships in the 400 and 800 yards freestyle. Here I owe a lot to the judicious efforts of late Naval Bathena. I have vivid memories of how I would galvanize energy within and after the workouts and the inspiration to triumph blazing in my heart. It is hard to describe the inner energy flowing within me. My entry into the arena a of competitive swimming coincided with my joining the ranks of the democratic rights movement, through joining Lok Shahi Hakk Sanghatana.


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 grueling 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. It is here that I felt most like a person in meditation and a crusader for fighting for man's liberation. At that point I was greatly drawn to serving the democratic rights movement.


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 trudged along like a machine. In the end I heaved a huge sigh of relief! I feel like mentioning how in this similar juncture I was inspired by the leftist and Naxalite martyrs against the Khalistani movement in Punjab and how when practicing they virtually flashed through my mind and heart, like flame extinguishing. My academic performances declined but with strong conviction I feel without my bond towards revolutionary ideology I may never have scaled my first peak. I can’t forget my counselling sessions on my inner conflicts, delving into the deep regions of the sub conscious mind. Another important memory I gave that year was participating in the Go To Villages Campaign of the revolutionary student Organisation Vidhyarti Praghati Sanghatana in Sangli, to promote cause of agrarian movement in rural areas. It had a major impact on my inner transformation, interacting with activists and peasants. The spirit of Naxalbari simply shimmered in my heart with the same power of the waves of an ocean.


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 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.


It is fascinating that in the rest periods I would be continuously researching on the merits or demerits of Socialist ideology. -in China and Russia. Somehow, I was attracted by the changes of Gorbachov and Perestrioka and could not read through his un-Marxist leanings. Ironically I even met a Trotskyite group whom I interacted with, asserting my differences.


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. Up to 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. More than my mind it was my heart that won the day!


I would love to print a copy of the Observer of my Channel swims which perfectly illustrates the ups and downs of channel swim. In many ways the experience explored or traversed areas of the subconscious mind and manifestation of the Universal energy.


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’ was the 432nd person and 16th Indian to achieve the feat. The same year the world long distance champion Renata Agondi perished while the record holder from Dharamtar to Gateway of India, Manoj Erande also failed. Unlike some legends like Mihar Sen and Aarti Saha or Taranath Shenoy, I completed the Channel on the first attempt. 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.


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. I wish I could have compiled my memoirs in the form of a book. 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 in spite of being a world champion swimmer, succumbed due to not being acclimatised with the cold water.


After crossing the Channel somehow my inclination turned towards inner or spiritual revolution, similar to that of Jiddu Krishnamurty. Somehow I was also inclined towards an academic Study of Marxism and Socialism.


I would strongly feel that even if not an activist in that time or for a considerable period it was the spirit of the service towards the people and inclination towards Mao thought that enabled me to completely tap the reservoirs of my potential in the Channel. No doubt it caused conflict and turmoil in stages being so young and not having adequate maturity. I had a confident tussle with psychological and emotional conflicts after passing out from school. I can’t forget how my grandfather would be critical of my participating in leftist political work on grounds of my being too young. Unfortunately I had a setback in academic performances, losing a year in 1986-87.



I visualize or experience how even applying dialectics of Mao Zedong thought can create a successful Channel crossing. In many ways swimming the Channel had the same ingredients as the long March led by the Chinese Communist party in 1935. Although being involved with revolutionary activism morally supporting Marxism-Leninism my swimming experience had more spiritual overtones. I remember even leftist activists asking me what a fantastic experience it was to swim the Channel. At the time when I accomplished the feat I was not so inspired towards revolutionary ideology as in earlier times, but a series of events rekindled my spirit into the fold of the revolutionary movement. I see a dialectical link between my inclination towards Mao thought and swimming the Channel, and how in turn my swimming the Channel paved the way to my pursuit of Mao thought. I can't forget the conflicts in my mind in the year before crossing the channel, on the personal and political level. There was a continuous heated debate within me about the legitimacy of Socialism in USSR in Stalin's era, on Perestroika, on the Role of Gandhi in independence etc.


In the post-channel days I became a cadre in the Marxist Leninist revolutionary movement though I flitted into different streams, with 2 of the Mao thought trend like the Chandra Pulla Reddy and Red Flag Groups. I virtually went into a new transition period. Even if I experienced confusion, inconsistency or wavering in many junctures or even went astray, but still rekindled the energy of the Channel swim. This was apparent in demonstrations or surrendering a meal giving press releases of a trade Union front or distributing revolutionary literature. The main highlight was my involvement in Student group Pragatisheel Vidhyarti Sanghatana, inclined to Mao thought trend. In many ways dipping my feet in the waters of mass revolutionary work were more challenging than even the Channel.

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