The story of Navi Mumbai's open water swimming champions

50 per cent of all open water swimmers competing across Thane district come from Navi Mumbai thanks to award-winning coaches, media frenzy and good pools

It’s 6 am, but Shubham Vanmali has already slipped on his swimming cap and trunks when we meet him at Father Agnel Sports Academy in Sector 9A, Vashi. Having covered nearly 36-km in the English Channel (often acknowledged as the Mount Everest of swimming) in August 4, 2014, in 12 hours, 42 minutes, followed by 17-km in the Strait of Gibraltor in 3 hours, 16 minutes ten days later, the 19-year-old is getting ready to add another feather to his cap in August: the 31-km swim in the Catalina Channel, America. The student of Nerul’s NCRD Sterling College has been swimming since he was eight. In 2013, he shifted his focus entirely from the safe environs of the pool to open water swimming — a sport that is finding champions in Navi Mumbai.

Shubham Vanmali
Shubham Vanmali, 19, trains at Vashi's Father Agnel Sports Academy for the 31-km swim through Catalina Channel in August. Pic/Sameer Markande

Follow the coach
The skills required for competitive swimming and open-water swimming vary, say coaches. While the former relies on short bursts of energy, the latter is about endurance, mental strength and will power. In the last one year, the Maharashtra State Amateur Aquatic Association, a unit of the Swimming Federation of India, has issued certificates to 25 swimmers from the state for having completed a long distance open-water swim, categorised as a swim in an outdoor water body such as a river, lake or ocean.

Manav Mehta coached by Santosh Manohar Patil, at the Uran Creek on Thursday. The Kharghar resident was the youngest member of the  Indian Open Water  Swim Team that swam from Goa to Mumbai this year, setting a World Record for the longest open water relay swim. PIC/SAMEER MARKANDE
Manav Mehta coached by Santosh Manohar Patil, at the Uran Creek on Thursday. The Kharghar resident was the youngest member of the Indian Open Water Swim Team that swam from Goa to Mumbai this year, setting a World Record for the longest open water relay swim. Pic/Sameer Markande

Of these, says Kishor Vaidya, a member of the association’s managing committee, 15 certificates were handed to swimmers from the satellite town. Others add their own statistics. Raju Palkar, secretary of the Sindhudurg District Aquatic Association which organises the state-level Malvan race — an annual 1km, 2km, 3km and 5km race in Malvan, Sindhudurg District — says of nearly 1,500 participants in December 2014, nearly 70 were from Navi Mumbai.

Saee Sukale and her coach Kishore Patil during a training session at Shailesh Tower Swimming Pool, Nerul
Saee Sukale and her coach Kishore Patil during a training session at Shailesh Tower Swimming Pool, Nerul

Good pools that cater to those who treat swimming as more than a recreational sport, award-winning coaches, media frenzy and an increasing number of children ready to make the sacrifice it takes are reasons for this rise.

(Above) Saee Sukale and her coach Kishore Patil during a training session at Shailesh Tower Swimming Pool, Nerul. (Below): Shubham Vanmali, who crossed the English Channel last year even as his legs gave in
Shubham Vanmali, who crossed the English Channel last year even as his legs gave in

Till five years ago, Vanmali was training at Nerul Gymkhana and D Y Patil Sports Academy which was equipped with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He switched to the Vashi academy where the 2011 Shiv Chhatrapati Award winner for Model Coach in Swimming, Gokul Kamath, conducts his sessions.

Ajay Thakur and Santosh Manohar Patil, who run the Uran-based Open Water Swimming Club of India, have launched 17 new routes along the Mumbai coastline
Ajay Thakur and Santosh Manohar Patil, who run the Uran-based Open Water Swimming Club of India, have launched 17 new routes along the Mumbai coastline

The 25-metre pool, Vanmali says, is meant for serious swimmers. “It has eight lanes and I can train here for several hours a day. As per my weekly workout, I have to finish swimming 120-km to 130-km,” he adds.

Tejas Parsekar, 25, has spent R30 lakhs for five international events. His mother Pooja says she and her husband have funded his trips by taking loans
Tejesh Parsekar, 25, has spent Rs 30 lakhs for five international events. His mother Pooja says she and her husband have funded his trips by taking loans

Kamath says the satellite town falls under Thane district in competitions. “And, 50 per cent of the swimmers in these competitions come from Navi Mumbai,” points out the 37-year-old. Navi Mumbai, with its many attractions is also causing defections. Rutuja Udeshi, a silver medalist at the Singapore National Aquatic Championships in 2014, says her parents moved from Dombivli to Vashi in 2007 because “the latter has better training facilities”.

Lure of the sea
Tejesh Parsekar, 25, doesn’t exactly make open-water swimming sound like a dreamy sport to take up. While recalling his world record-making swim, which he completed backstroke across the Strait of Gibraltar in the year 2010, the first memory to strike him is throwing up.

He did it 18 times over the nearly 2o-km journey. “You can’t stop swimming, because the water is about 12ºC and you run the risk of hypothermia. The seawater goes into your nose and mouth and the vomit is all over your face. But, you wash yourself and continue,” he says, when we meet at his Vashi residence.

Sponsorships are tough to come by and apart from a certificate, winners are not usually awarded cash. What, then, is
the lure?

Like others, Parsekar was introduced to the sport when he was six, by his coach. He attempted his first open-water swim — the 14-kilometre swim from Uran’s Mora jetty to the Gateway of India in 1996 — completing it in under three hours. Beating nature is an addictive high, says Parsekar, who also coaches students at the Mahatma School of Academic and Sports in Panvel
Vanmali agrees. “It isn’t easy. For instance, while swimming the English Channel last year, my legs gave in at one point owing to an old injury.

I completed the swim by paddling with my hands. Snack breaks — where someone on your boat crew throws you energy drinks — are timed to 20 seconds and you can’t rest your hand on the boat or you will get disqualified,” he adds. But, beating the odds is exhilarating. He credits the discipline that the training provided for his improved grades. “I am dyslexic and was a below average student. But in Class X, I scored 72 per cent,” he grins.

Charting new waters
Mumbai has a rich tradition of open-water swimming, say coaches. The legendary Dharamtar-Gateway of India route is one that every newbie dreams of swimming. It also hosts two legendary open-water races — the state-level Sunkrock to Gateway of India and the all-India Open Sea Swimming Competition conducted by the Indian Navy. However, lack of official records of title holders inspired coaches Ajay Thakur and Santosh Manohar Patil to open the Uran-based Open Water Swimming Club of India. This year, they launched 17 new routes, including the Vashi Bridge-Gateway and the Belapur Bridge to Gateway.

“It took us four years to study the routes,” says Patil, 34, who has participated in five international events, which provided them a perspective on how to turn things around back home. “In 2013, we approached the Maharashtra State Amateur Aquatic Association and Mumbai Port Trust for permission. We also approached the Maritime and Navy departments for coastal maps. Using these, we studied the routes, currents, waves and depth at each spot.

We have also introduced a live tracking system, to track swimmers from the boat. We also started using light sticks which swimmers can use in case they get lost,” says Thakur. Another plan is to train Uran-based swimming star Raj Patil to swim across the 110-km long Strait of Florida. “We want him to become the first Asian to do so, by 2016,” Thakur adds, excited.

A media monster?
Yet, the sport’s popularity, many argue, is unlikely to win India a medal. “State-level swimming competitions are cut-throat and scoring a medal is tough,” says Vanmali, adding, “But if you swim from Uran to Alibaug, there will be a lot of media attention, which is why people get tempted to give it a shot.” Kamath agrees. “They see one Nerul boy or girl swim long distance and everyone wants to get on the bandwagon.” This means that swimmers don’t train for Olympic-level open water swimming competitions, happy with the media attention. “You now have a 5-km open-water event at the Olympics, but nobody in India trains for it. The ones who usually attempt it are the 1,500 metre competitive swimmers, not regular open-water swimmers,” he elaborates.

An expensive feat
While a month’s training at the Father Agnes Sports Academy costs Rs 2,500, the Open Water Swimming Club of India charges R50-60K per event, depending on the distance (the cost is inclusive of boats, guards and food for the event itself). Dipica Dias, mother to seven-year-old Andrew Dias who came fifth in last year’s Malvan race, says they pay R15,000 for half-yearly sessions with coach Sanketh Sawant at Navi Mumbai Sports Association.

Some parents admit it’s a tough sport to sponsor. The bill of Parsekar’s five international events totals R30 lakhs. The regime is expensive. “He had to be fed sprouts, dried fruits and juices. We funded his trips through loans. So, now I asked him to earn and save a little money, to pursue this,” his mother Pooja says. It’s not just the money. “One parent has to be dedicated to this,” says Suvarna Sukale, mother of 12-year-old Saee who swam the Dharamtar-Gateway of India route in nine hours and 15 minutes, this year.

The event cost them roughly Rs 80,000. “Her diet includes carbohydrates and proteins, so I have to give her dried fruits in the morning, protein biscuits, cheese or paneer. I also have to give her tiffin every two hours. I also have to give her five eggs a day,” says Survana when we catch up with her and Saee at Shailesh Tower Swimming Pool in Nerul. So, is Saee a disciplined eater? The Ryan International School student laughs. “No, mum has to force me.”

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