Come Hell or High Water

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Sufyan Shaikh, the first Indian to complete swimming in ten seas and the youngest recipient of the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award, talks to Sean Sequeira about his achievements and challenges

How did you decide to take up open water swimming?
Since I started swimming at the age of three, I was very good at swimming competitively. I remember vaguely that my parents took me to a beach when I  was seven and the view and the atmosphere struck me. It was the zing and the thrill that I imagined and I asked my coach if it was possible for me to swim in the open water. Luckily he put me in a competition swim from Chorward to Veraval on the coast of Gujarat which is considered to be the most dangerous water body across India, famous for its sea life and turbulent waves. Since then I’ve always been an open water swimmer because of the adventure value.

Which has been the most challenging swim for you till date?
Every swim that I have done so far has been challenging. Every sea has different temperatures and sea life. But a swim that was challenging both for me and my parents emotionally and physically was the English Channel. Before swimming the English Channel I had not gone to another country to stay and train for three months. Whatever swims that I had done were funded by my parents and when I decided to swim the English Channel, my family was nearly bankrupt. The government was not helpful and sponsors would shy away as swimming does not have a guaranteed return in our country. Moreover, I had dislocated my knee and had to undergo a major operation a month prior to my scheduled leave.  In short, I had everything to lose if I failed and a lot to gain if I succeeded.

How do you train for a competition?
My swims are mostly endurance based. I have to swim for hours, maintaining a steady speed, and have some energy reserved in the end for sprinting. My training lasts for about six to eight hours a day focusing on maintaining speed and constant hand movement. The thing that challenges me the most while practicing is that I am an open water swimmer who practices in pool but competes in ocean. This is why I prefer to train minimum in the pool and reach my competition or swim destination a month or so in advance so that I can train in the right weather and get maximum results.

Does any particular stroke help you in open waters over others?
Being a swimmer you are supposed to know all the four strokes of swimming. Mostly, open water swimmers prefer freestyle because it’s more direct and you can swim for hours and hours without being too tired. My stroke of choice is freestyle as well.

Do you prefer the competitive swims with other participants or solo swims?
Personally, I like to challenge other swimmers to race. I am a speed driven athlete and knowing that someone is  challenging you on the other side just makes a swim much better. The solo swims are good but after a while they do get boring when it’s just you and the sea.

What mental and physical challenges did you face in your accomplishment of being the first Indian to swim across nine/ten seas?
A lot of both. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but my parents gave me the luxury and lifestyle of a prince.  I can say swimming the English Channel was a turning point in my life. I got some recognition from the press which made people aware who I am and what I am here to do, but before that, there were a lot of fights  in my family regarding my travels for swimming competition but the dedication of my parents helped me reach where I am today. The government was never really helpful in any way as most of the time we were told to meet someone who didn’t exist. Also, training was a big issue because of swimming in the pool and competing in the ocean.

When can we expect you to complete your personal challenge of swimming across all 102 channels in the world?
It will take about 30 to 40 years considering the time and the goal. But I do believe it is achievable (if I have a long life). Each sea is different and the training that goes under it is unique to the swim.

You did not qualify for the Olympics in 2012 because of lack of funding and support from the government. Is this pushing you over the edge to leave the sport of swimming?
Nothing can push me to quit swimming. However, looking at my current situation, funding has been a major part for me to think about stopping to swim competitively. For example, I went to the World Championship in Shanghai 2011 and I wasn’t even provided with a shirt that says I represent India let alone having a team of seven people to take care of me. Every other swimmer had facilities of a doctor, manager, therapist, coach, and nutritionist while I was the only one wearing a plain white t-shirt and competing. An estimated cost to compete at World Champs requires about 7 to 8 lakhs. And to qualify for the Olympics I’d have to compete in 14 of these events each year. Now I ask you a question – how is it possible?

SUFYAN’S MOST OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS

1. Youngest person in the world to complete 9 seas in 2007 (aged 17)
2. First Indian to complete swimming 10 seas in 2011
3. Youngest recipient of India’s Tenzing Norgay Adventure Award in 2010 (aged 20)

SMALL STROKES

YOUR INSPIRATION: My mother

YOUR CAREER AFTER SWIMMING: Golf looks likely

ACHIEVEMENT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF: Receiving the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award from honourable ExPresident Ms Pratibha Patil

YOUR FAVOURITE BEACH: Hvar, Croatia

10 WATER BODIES SUFYAN HAS SWAM

* PERSIAN GULF
* ARABIAN SEA
* NORTH SEA
* ATLANTIC OCEAN
* PACIFIC OCEAN
* GULF OF MEXICO
* MEDITERRANEAN SEA
* ADRIATIC SEA
* INDIAN OCEAN
* EAST CHINA SEA

Volume 3 Issue 2

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