Water woman!

Norris Pritam | Updated on: Jun 04, 2011


Champion swimmer Meenakshi Pahuja is all set to tackle the hot and salty waters at the upcoming Annual Swim Around Key West Island in Florida.

She had a dream. Ever since she began competitive swimming as a five-year-old, crossing the English Channel was an ambition Meenakshi Pahuja grew up with. Eldest of three siblings, Meenakshi was drawn to water by her father, V.K. Pahuja, a swimming coach at Delhi's Modern School. Under dad's tutelage, young Meenakshi became a sub-junior national champion in 50 metres breaststroke before she turned nine. And at 19, she won a medal for India in Asia-Pacific Championship's 400 metres Individual Medley in the South Korean city of Pusan in 1996. For 13 long years, she won medals before calling it a day in 2001. The English Channel remained a dream though. But after a five-year break, she had a calling. And Meenakshi was back in the water to have a go at her dream.

“But the problem was that there was no water body in Delhi where I could swim long-distance for training,” says Meenakshi. Instead, she attempted a 19-km race in Bhagirathi river at Murshidabad, West Bengal, in 2006. “The race gave me a lot of confidence that I am not too old and I attempted an international marathon swim in Lake Zurich the next year,” she recalls. While the young woman was determined enough to endure the sub-20 degree Centigrade water in Zurich, money to reach there was a stumbling block. In an unprecedented move, the then Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental chipped in by sanctioning Rs 70,000. Of course, Dad Pahuja was there to take the rest of the burden. “I am glad I covered the 26.4 km distance in 10 hours and 48 minutes to secure the fifth position,” says Meenakshi.

By then, she had joined Delhi's elite Lady Shri Ram College as an assistant professor in physical education. But the added responsibility did not deter her from swimming. Fortunately for her, college principal Meenakshi Gopinath supported the young adventure enthusiast all the way.

In 2008, she again set her eyes on the English Channel. Just a week before leaving for Dover, Meenakshi covered an 81-km race in the Bhagirithi river as a “build up” for the English Channel. “Fighting muddy water and water snakes, I covered it in 12 hours and 27 minutes, so I was really on a high,” she says.

“But I still remember that fateful 13th day of September as a bad dream when I had to give up halfway due to sea sickness.” Not many would know that attempting the English Channel costs a lot of money. Hiring an official boat, a pilot and other expenses come to around Rs 8 lakh. “But I must thank Gautam Singhania, of Ballarpur Papers, who responded within one day to my request and sponsored my trip,” says Meenakshi.

A source of inspiration to her young students, she is now all set to travel to the US to participate in the 12.5-mile Annual Swim Around Key West Island in Florida on June 4. Again, for lack of open water, Meenakshi has been training in a pool at the UN Office in Delhi. On Facebook, she has requested friends to pray for her as “it's a hard swim in hot and salty water with sharks for company.”

She rues the fact that despite a lot of talent in the country, no effort is made to popularise open-water swimming. “Next year, it is also going to be an event in the Olympic Games in London but nothing has been done,” she says. “We are improving in swimming now but we should also pay proper attention to open-water river swimming.”

One look at Meenakshi and one may assume she is a lazy woman brought up on a fast-food diet. But she needs body weight for that vital buoyancy to propel in water. “Every time I race long distance I shed about five to six kg of body weight, so I need muscle mass,” she says. “Often people expect me to be slim for they feel I am a sportsperson and ought to be like a reed. But if only they knew what it takes to swim 10 to 12 hours continuously,” she says with a chuckle.

At 33, it is not easy to train several hours and then swim long distances. “I have a demanding job at college and I train in my free hours. This means almost no social life,” she says. It also means a busy time for the entire Pahuja clan. While dad prepares her training schedules and accompanies her in a boat during races, younger sister Supriya, a naturopath, takes care of her diet. “I am blessed that I have a father who is not a typical stereotype but fully supports me,” she says. Her mother insists on her getting married though. But Meenakshi is not dreaming of a tall, dark and handsome man, at least not at the moment. “Where is the time for this?” Right now, she has only the English Channel on her mind.

Published on June 02, 2011
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