When Rohini Rau decided to take up competitive sailing, it wasn’t just the unfavourable winds she was up against. It was one girl vs a world of naysayers who thought women couldn’t & shouldn’t sail.
But that didn’t stop Rau. At 30, apart from being a renowned national and international champion sailor, she is also a successful doctor, a TED fellow for life and the Founding Curator of the Chennai Hub of Global Shapers Community.
Apart from four international medals, Rohini Rau has sailed over nine world championships and clinched 30 odd gold medals. She is an eight-time consecutive national gold medallist in the women’s category.
Imagine being in the middle of the ocean all by yourself at age 10! But the wind on her sails stayed behind her, thanks to her mother.
“Sailing has been a part of my system right from the start. My mother, who studied Marine Biology at the University of Portsmouth, UK, was the only one in the family who knew about sailing. When she came to Chennai from Calcutta, she was enthralled by the century old Royal Madras Yacht Club, credited to be the first sailing Club in the South of India. She would take me sailing from the time she was pregnant. So, I was on a boat right from the age of one,” Rohini says.
Rohini only started competing at the age of 10, when her mother enrolled her in a summer coaching camp. The coach at the camp encouraged her to compete in a sailing championship in Mumbai.
She went down to Mumbai with the rest of the team to compete in her first ever national sailing championship competition at 11. It was the first taste of defeat for a young Rohini. Competing with four girls, she secured the last place.
“I came last, but I told everybody that I came fourth, to save face,” laughs Rohini.
Every weekend after that competition was all about sailing for these young weekend sailors. Until the age of 15, while other sailors sailed in the boat meant for the junior level called the Optimist, Rohini at 14, had become too big for the vessel.
She started sailing in the 420-class which also helped her taste her first & biggest success at the Asian Championship in Mumbai in 2004.
In Class 12, with her partner, Pallavi Naik, from Goa, Rohini clinched India’s first ever gold medal in an international competition.
“It was the defining moment of my life. Hearing the national anthem play, sleeping with our gold medals, waking up with it. It felt surreal.”
Little did she think about her board exams that were only three months away. Her school refused to let her sit for the board exam because she failed her prelims in Math.
“They wanted a cent percent reason. But I pleaded and begged. I worked hard and managed to secure 86%. Looking back down the years, I am the only person from my entire batch who went to med school.”
Medicine was never a passion or dream for Rohini, unlike her mother and grandmother who wanted to pursue it but couldn’t. It was on this car drive from Mahabalipuram back home that her parents helped her list down things she enjoyed.
Biology, people and travel, were some of them. She enrolled in BSc Psychology, thinking she wouldn’t get through med school because there was no way, her parents were going to pay for a seat. But she tried her luck through the Sports quota for medicine.
“That year there were 1800 applicants. Only three could make it through the sports quota for medicine, while the rest would get placed in top engineering colleges. I was sure I did not want to do engineering. People thought I was cocky and stupid for not having applied for both.”
It was the first time sailing was included in the sports quota. She was in for a shock when she made it to the third seat for medicine!
Medicine Vs Sailing
Once she got into med school, she was coerced to quit sailing and concentrate on medicine.
“I couldn’t for the life of me understand the logic behind it. I got into a med school through the sports quota. I assumed I was going to continue sailing,” she says.
These statements strengthened her resolve to stand her ground. “When everybody told me I couldn’t do it or I shouldn’t do it, it pushed me to show them that I could. I took part in almost seven championships in my first year.”
She lived in a hostel all the way in Chengalpattu, an hour and a half away from Chennai. She would travel three hours a day in the train to sail.
Pursuing medicine while sailing came with its own set of challenges. The World Championships clashed with her her first-year final exams. The dean called her parents to have a word.
“Instead of complaining about me, he shared that he was a boxer in his youth. He knew the life span of a sportsperson. He told me, “You can study at any point in time. But you only have a small age bracket for sports. And it is nothing short of an honour to represent your country,’” she says.
He encouraged her to go for the world championships.
It is such key people in her life that she extends her gratitude to.
Studying in a government college meant no grace marks or concessions, even if she was the only person juggling international sailing competitions and medicine.
“Every time I took time off for championships, I had to come back and write my exams six months later. I studied five months more than my classmates every time I missed college.” That’s what took Rohini almost three and a half years longer to finish her MBBS.
Why did she stop sailing?
The lowest phase in Rohini’s life was during 2012. She refuses to paint a rosy picture of her struggles as a woman on the seas.
“I was the only civilian woman sailor competing with army and navy men who dominate the sport. I did not think of it as a disadvantage, in terms of racing. What I was at loggerheads with, was old people sitting in committees deciding who gets to represent the country at competitions. Who would chose a civilian over an army official?” she questions.
There were times when they questioned nominating her, thinking she would quit sailing at any point, either to pursue medicine or get married.
“I would be training for a competition and the day before I was set to leave, they would tell me my name was not sent in. I kept quiet several times because I needed their support until the Olympics. When I made it to the Qualifiers of the Olympic games, they didn’t send my name in for the finals.”
She hit rock bottom when two years of hard work fell like a pack of cards. But she knew nobody could take her medical degree away. She decided to return and complete her degree.
Rohini may have stopped sailing competitively in 2012, but several things in the same year pulled her out of the depression she could have gone heavily into. She moved forward with every setback.
She became a TED fellow in 2009. Her TED journey helped her collaborate with other TED fellows and marked a new chapter of her life – a successful medical career.
Will she ever return to sailing?
Having competed for over 15 years, Rohini says it’s hard to remove the element of competitiveness while she is in the waters. “Sometimes I do feel it’s going to hit me hard enough, and I might consider going back to sailing. But at this point, I think I have been hurt too much for me to get back to it.”
Stating the simplest challenges that women sailors face, she says, “It’s a male dominated sport, there aren’t enough women to support you. Many girls sail till the age of 25, but leave it eventually.”
Sometimes, parents do not let their daughters sail because they get tanned and then wouldn’t fit ‘suitable’ matches.
“It’s an adventure sport; you get cuts and bruises. I once dislocated my elbow hitting a part of the boat. It is injury-prone. But support from parents and partners can be a huge boost,” says Rohini.
Last but not the least, sailing is a very expensive sport that needs a strong financial backing, she says.
“By no means am I going to sugarcoat it. Nobody told me, it was going to be easy. But I gave my passion, my all. You can do it too. But understand that it’s going to hard. It is only when you chase your dreams with a burning passion, that you will go to the ends of the earth and make it happen,” she concludes.