“I wished that it would get over quickly, but quitting was never an option. The discomfort only made me swim faster and better."
Her skin was burning and itching, but Bula swam across the English Channel.
“I wished that it would get over quickly, but quitting was never an option. The discomfort only made me swim faster and better,” Bula Chowdhury tells The Better India.
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She is allergic to saline water, but this was never a strong enough reason to break her resilience. She believes that she was born to swim and so, she kept challenging herself.
Bula is a 48-year-old now but began swimming when she was just three.
“There was a pond close to our house, and my father would take us swimming there,” she says.
Recalling the day when he nearly drowned in the pond, she says that the tragedy was averted thanks to a brave stranger who rescued him. That’s when he decided that his children would learn to swim, no matter what.
So, Bula decided to carry his wish forward, and how!
Just a year after she learned to swim, Bula joined a swimming club where she was trained by a professional.
Hailing from a small town in West Bengal, she had no idea what a swimsuit looked like, and would wear a frock to the pool. One day, her mother saw a swimsuit in a shop and decided that she would stitch one for her daughter. Owing to the family’s poor financial status, and unsure about the fabric required, she stitched one made of cotton.
But Bula couldn’t care less about its quality. All she knew was that she loved the water and slowly, her coaches realised her relentless talent.
In 1982, speaking to India Today, her coach Bernard Johnke had said, “Bula is far superior to the other 14 girls in my camp and easily the best potential in the country. She is at an early age when her body is not yet fully formed, and so she can adapt better to techniques that will help improve her timings.”
And he wasn’t wrong.
12-year-old Bula was 4 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 34 kg, but could swim like a fish.
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“As a young swimmer, I have broken, and established new records which were left unbeaten for several years,” she told TBI, adding, “My participation in championships—from the Commonwealth Games to the Asian championships etc.— was not just a determination to make a mark, but a result of my true love for the water.”
Soon enough, swimming pools proved to be too small for Bula who wished to conquer the seas.
She started training to swim in the English Channel in 1989 and even when she was diagnosed as allergic to seawater, she did not stop.
“My skin would burn and itch all night after the swim. But I wasn’t going to let such obstacles stop me from pursuing my dream. I always wanted to be a professional swimmer and what great thing can be achieved if not for a few obstacles and challenges?”
In 1989, at the age of 19, she took her first dive into the Channel and repeated the feat ten years later.
But it was in 2004 that the swimmer would set a world record. She would become the first woman to cross the seven seas, swimming from the Palk Straits from Talaimannar in Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu in India.
She would even become the first woman to swim in sea channels in five continents in 2005. Not just that, her feat of conquering the 30 km track in three hours and 26 minutes was a record in itself!
A winner at the South Asian Federation Games and a world record holder, Bula has been awarded the Arjuna Award for her achievements in swimming and is also a recipient of the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian award.
She shares, “They say water is life and it stands true for me even professionally. Although I did day jobs for a brief period, I realised that swimming is only what I am truly passionate about. And this kept me going.”
Allergies, financial problems and other issues, were not enough obstacles for her.
“And this determination has made me achieve what I have,” concludes the water baby, who is currently working towards establishing a swimming institute in Bengal.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
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