Today’s Google Doodle, celebrates the 80th birthday of the trailblazing Indian swimmer Arati Saha.
Arati Saha shattered all the barriers by taking an unconventional career choice as a swimmer, at the age of 5. She went on to win 22 medals before even completing a decade in her career.
Arati was the lady who was an inspiration to many girls in an age when women were not free to follow their passion. What was her passion? Why swimming of course.
The reason Arati is famous is because back in 1959, she became the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel. She was just 19 at the time. Of course while that is the highlight of her career, there is more to her than just crossing the water body. Her story is one of courage, perseverance and of course endurance.
She was born into a middle class family in 1940 in Kolkata. Her father was in the armed forces and she lost her mother when she was a toddler. At the age of 4 she used to go with her uncle to Champatala Ghat to bathe and that was where she learned to swim. Her father recognised her interest in swimming and started getting her trained. In 1946, the five-year-old won gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition. That was where it all began.
Between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal. Arati’s speciality were 100m freestyle, 100m breast stroke and 200m breast stroke. She dominated the nationals in 1948 and at the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100m breast stroke to set an all-India record which was previously held by Dolly Nazir.
She took part in the 1952 Olympics but did not manage a podium finish. So how did the English Channel feat come about? She trained hard encouraged by the likes of Mihir Sen, who would become the first Indian to achieve the feat in 1958. In 1959, Arati swam and covered a large distance but eventually had to quit under pressure. But the next attempt proved to be successful just a month later, only 5 days after her 19th birthday.
She was the toast of the nation and later that year she married her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. A Padma Shri was awarded to her in 1960 and she had also joined Bengal Nagpur Railway.
But her later years were very much away from swimming. In 1994 she was admitted to a nursing home jaundice and encephalitis. She battled for 19 days before succumbing and passed away a month before turning 54. Department of Posts made a Rs 3 postage stamp in honour of her conquest of the English Channel in 1999. Earlier, in 1996, a bust was erected near her residence.
Arati put Indian swimming on the map and was an idol to many girls who took up the sport. She is no more than a memory to the modern Indian sports fan but it is up to us to ensure that her legacy is not a mere footnote in the pages of our sports history.