World open water swimming champ Bhakti Sharma isn’t afraid to cosy up to predators of the deep. On Mother’s Day, she reveals why she’s her mother’s daughter when it comes to her success
While girls her age might think of dates, makeup and shopping, 25-year-old Bhakti Sharma’s got ice and dangerous marine life on her mind, having swum in the freezing waters of the Antarctic this January, and that too, in a world record-breaking time. She holds the title of World Open Water Swimmer — clocking 1.4 miles in 41.14 minutes. It’s Mothers Day today and Bhakti says her win has made her mother Leena Sharma’s dream come true. A National medal-winning swimmer in her time, Leena is also Bhakti’s coach and the swim champ admits, “I feel satisfied as my world record is more like my gift to her today. I always used to say she’s the strictest mother ever, but I now realise the value of that even more — it is she who brought me to where I am. She’s been through thick and thin with me and I guess I should do much more than just take her for dinner today. Mom couldn’t swim much due to familial and financial issues and I think I’ve fulfilled my mother’s dream,” says Bhakti. They are also the first mother-daughter team to swim the English Channel.
No mean feat
For someone who started very early and has been swimming since a decade, she’s quite the water baby by now! Having reached the state level swimming competitions in school and participated at the National Level by Class 10, followed by several gruelling long-distance swims, nothing prepared her for the Antarctic event this year and says it was her mother’s words that propelled her towards her record. “It was so tough,” she recalls. “I knew it would be chilling, but nothing prepares you for when you are actually in that freezing water and have to navigate it. The water also becomes very dense in such temperatures and I remember the moments when it was so difficult to pull through; at times my legs ached and I just wanted to stop. At that point, when it was hardest, two things made me go on. One, my mother’s single advice that I keep close to me — that no matter how fast or slow you are, you have to complete the race. And the other was this little penguin that I suddenly saw swimming next to me, struggling but continuing, nevertheless. It was like a sign from up above, telling me I had to go on too and I did,” she says.
Swimming against the clock in the Antarctic and (inset) with her mother Leena
Bhakti has swum with whales, stingrays, sea lions and even schools of jellyfish. “Those are very dangerous and prevalent mostly in the English Channel. Once, in the Mediterranean Sea off Spain, I saw this huge fin next to me. I told myself I’m imagining it and kept on. Later, when I emerged from the water my mother told me it was a Fin Whale (the earth’s second biggest animal, measuring about 88 feet). She didn't want to shout or I would have panicked. The animal just passed me by. I haven’t encountered sharks so far, but it's possible.” So what gives this no-fear factor? “I jump in and just surrender myself to Mother Nature and say jo bhi hona hai, ho jayega (whatever has to happen, will happen), that’s all. I have complete faith in the Almighty,” says Bhakti.
She has her friends in awe of her achievements. “They have nicknames for me, like ‘mermaid’, ‘whale’, ‘macchli’ and ‘jal ki rani’, but I don’t mind that one bit,” she says. And did she intimidate the boys in her co-ed school? “Hardly,” she giggles, adding, “I was more like a fat, spongy creature when I swam the English Channel as you have to put on weight for long-distance events.”
Her dream swim? “Well, I had wanted to swim in all the five oceans and I’ve done that, so the bucket list is already accomplished. Maybe the Dead Sea next? Now that would be a real challenge,” she laughs, adding, “On a more serious note, I’d love to do the International Ice Swimming Championships where they dig out a pool made of ice and you have to swim in that.”
There’s enough on this swimmer and Class 12 topper’s plate for now. She plans to write her memoirs soon and has got a film offer from a Bollywood production house! “I have been approached for a film on my life and that’s exciting. But I’ll write my book of memoirs first,” she says.
Wat-er way to go!
>> Bhakti holds the distinction of being the youngest female swimmer in the world to swim in all five oceans and the seven seas
>> She shares her Asian record with her mother, Leena Sharma, and friend, Priyanka Gehlot, for the first swim by a 3-member women’s relay team across the English Channel
>> At the age of 14, she swam a distance of 36 kms from Dharamtal to Gateway of India, in 9 hours and 30 minutes
>> The Government of India bestowed her with the prestigious ‘Rashtrapati Award’ that goes by the name of the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award for Water Sport, in 2012