The water is calm. Still, Aniruddha Soman gulps. The ocean is nothing like a swimming pool, no matter how many times he has told himself that. And 5 kilometers in the water does not seem easier than 6 kilometers on land. Not for the first time that day, the 47-year-old asks himself how he came to be standing on the sands of Malvan.
It started innocuously enough, when the running craze hit Mumbai. Marathon fever had everyone in his thrall, regardless of gender, age or background. Aniruddha’s doctor told him that it was perfectly safe but cautioned him to not to push himself beyond. But the 6km Dream Run in 2010 gave Aniruddha a taste for the sportsman’s life.
When a friend mentioned long distance swimming, the concept intrigued Aniruddha who had spent some time on the Fiji Islands. His visions were soon disappointed when he discovered that the swimathon involved jumping off a rock just off Mumbai and swimming towards the Gateway of India. The filthy waters surrounding his home city did not inspire him. But the idea persisted, especially when he learnt that he’d need to redo his swimming style to even consider swimming in the ocean. Breaststroke, his go-to style on pool vacations was not going to cut it in the ocean. So he decided to enroll for classes and learn freestyle swimming.
“Swimming?” came the question from all quarters.
“Yes, I know,” Aniruddha shrugged, “All we ever do in Mumbai is swim against traffic.”
So began his hunt. Every trainer he approached turned him down, preferring instead to teach children. The internet proved handy and Aniruddha decided to teach himself. The local pool, Thane Tarangan was only 25 meters and he found he was barely able to go beyond two laps before stopping, exhausted by the poolside.
Then winter arrived, bringing another problem. While Mumbai never had freezing winter, the temperature was low enough to making swimming uncomfortable. The underweight Aniruddha struggled to swim a single lap. Finally he gave up, shivering, and the season passed without his having stepped into the water.
He resumed in the summer and began to perfect his freestyle stroke. By the time the next winter had rolled around, Aniruddha was found jumping off the side of the pool, wearing a full-length bodysuit. It was only a marginal improvement with its full sleeves and leg lengths but no isothermal layer. Still, it was enough to take Aniruddha through the second winter without losing a day of practice.
Once swimming became a regular feature of Aniruddha’s day, his next big problem cropped up. For a bespectacled person, swimming is only a slight inconvenience as long as one is willing to be blind under water. But while attempting long distance sea swimming, visibility is vital, both under water and above it. Temperature fluctuations caused Aniruddha’s 2.5 powered spectacles to fog above water. Luckily, one of the lifeguards at the pool told him about an optician who sold special powered swimming goggles. Aniruddha bought a pair only to find that the anti-fogging film inside was easily damaged. So every few weeks, he’d visit the optician to place a fresh order.
It took three years to find the event that would give Aniruddha’s efforts meaning. While Mumbai’s waters were very dirty, the Western coastline was beautiful. A few hours down from Goa, was Malvan beach where the Sindudurg Swimming Association conducted an annual 3km swimathon. Aniruddha registered and refocused his training. He worried incessantly about developing cramps, about losing his stamina and about the temperature but he didn’t give up.
And finally on 24 December 2014, the Soman family stood on the Malvan beach. They spent 7 hours waiting to receive the registered swimming caps that would be the only visible sign of participants once they were in the water. Their already strained nerves were tested further when a previous batch of swimmers came ashore. One of them a young champion, returning from a practice session, had been badly cut and was bleeding profusely. The fishermen whispered about a shark attack as she was rushed into the ICU.
Sharks were a danger Aniruddha had not even considered. He asked the organiser if there was any way to avoid sharks. The organiser shook his head, pointed to Aniruddha’s feet and said, “Your skin is so white, it will attract attention.” Much unnerved, Aniruddha looked up shark protection tips online. The best he could glean was an article that suggested the following:
1. Don’t swim early in the morning
2. Don’t swim late at night
3. If you’re bleeding, don’t enter the water
4. Don’t go alone. If you swim with one other person, the chances of your getting attacked come down to 50%
The last was scant consolation. But Aniruddha looked at the high turnout for the swimathon and told his wife that he was 'statistically safe' at least. And then they went to bed.
The swimathon begins at 7 but reporting time is 6AM. Aniruddha has been ready and at the beach from 5:30AM itself. Still, the boat only arrives to take them out at 9AM. As soon as they set foot onto the boat, Aniruddha feels his heart begin to thud in his chest. Aniruddha wonders whether he can jump off here, now, here and now it’s too late. Every minute that the boat gets further from the shore only intensifies his heartbeat and soon they can’t see land anymore. Just as he thinks he will scream, a most beautiful vision appears.
A head bobs above the surface of the water, followed by another and another. Soon the sea is dotted with swimmers, those returning to shore, from the earlier batch. The sunlight catches the waves and bounces off the tops of the heads that vanish under water only to reappear under another wave. The swimmers cut through the water with the grace of powerful sea creatures. Their arms slice through the water as if they were made to fly through water and not just hang down the sides of their owners’ bodies. Their strokes are clean and it seems like the swimmers never pause to take breaths, drawing their nourishment and inspiration from the sea directly. Each swimmer is one with the water and the world ceases to exist around him. The vision gives Aniruddha a sense of purpose and excitement. He wonders whether he will ever be able to swim like them. This is his first swim in the sea, after all.
They have already passed the 2km mark and Aniruddha asks himself how he will maintain his sense of direction. The swimmers made it look easy but Aniruddha knows that even in a swimming pool, it is difficult to swim in one straight line. Out in the open sea, with waves playing tricks of angles and motion, it’s easy to go adrift. He poses the question to the fisherman who is navigating the boat. The man points and says, “That coconut tree.” Aniruddha turns eagerly and his face falls. The man is pointing to a horizon that has at least two dozen coconut trees dotting it.
But before he can ask the man again, the boat is pulling to a stop. Aniruddha looks around him and finds the other people in his group already have their caps on. One by one, they jump, dive or slide into the water. Aniruddha is the last one standing on the boat. For a second, he hesitates, wondering how he got here. Then, with one last look at the coconut trees, he lets his feet leave the boat and touch the water.
It doesn’t take him long to find a rhythm. The water, to his surprise, is deliciously warm. Within a few seconds, he realizes that the sun is high enough to reach even under water, which steadies his nerves a bit. He is briefly distracted by noises. A fellow participant has panicked and is shouting about drowning. Aniruddha drifts in the water for a minute and he sees the man being pulled out of the water by the fisherman navigator. Then, surprised by how calm he feels, Aniruddha turns and starts to swim again.
Most of the other swimmers are still in sight but a few feet away. He makes in their direction. Realising that the sun is in the left corner of his eyes, he decides to make this navigational point. As his arms cut through the water, he realizes he is swimming in the vast, open ocean.
He keeps his fellow participants in sight. The swim feels natural, not painful or scary at all. He doesn’t even remember to think about sharks. Aniruddha embraces the water and lets its natural rhythm guide his own.
It’s a little under an hour when he touches the shore.
Aniruddha Soman completed the 3km swimathon on his first time. Other than the Mumbai marathon, he had no prior experience in athletics or sports. He also received no formal coaching. At 47, he still found himself in the middle age bracket of the 1200-odd participant group. Children as young as 6 and seniors over 60 swum the swimathon with him. Over 25 zillas and districts of Maharashtra participated and there were 62 participants in his group of 40-60 year olds. After his experience at Malvan, he has been inspired to prepare for the 5km marathon in Goa.
Aniruddha Soman joined Asian Paints in 1991 as a Junior Chemist in water-based technology. He has been a part of the International business unit, worked in the Fiji Islands and Australia and overseen the South Asian and Gulf countries. Currently he operates out of the Turbhe deco business unit as Senior Manager Product Development.
Aug 08 2016, 7:01 PM
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