Meditation Helps Bhakti Sharma Swim Around The World

Meditation Helps Bhakti Sharma Swim Around The World

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Given the desert land where she was born and brought up, Bhakti Sharma of Rajasthan, India seems to be one of the least likely individuals to swim in extreme ends of the Earth.

But the English Channel swimmer (13 hours 55 minutes in 2006) has completed all kinds of swims around the world, from Antarctica to Aquatic Park.

Her track record of success includes a 16 km swim from Uran Port to the Gateway of India in 4 hours (2003 at the age of 13), a 36 km swim from Dharamtal to the Gateway of India in 9 hours 30 minutes (2004 at the age of 14), English Channel solo crossing in 13 hours 55 minutes (2006 at the age of 16), 26.4 km International Self Transcendence Marathon-Schwimmen in Switzerland in 10 hours 41 minutes (2006), Strait of Gibraltar in 5 hours 13 minutes (2007), 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West in Florida (2007), Swim Around The Rock in San Francisco (2007), 25 km USA Swimming National Open Water Championships in Florida (2007), English Channel 3-person relay (2008), 72 km two-way relay crossing between Dharamtal to the Gateway of India in 16 hours 58 minutes (2008), and a 1.8 km swim in the Arctic Ocean in 33 minutes (2010 in 4-6ºC water).

She explains her background, motivations and her current project, Swim to Educate- a far-reaching and profoundly inspirational effort.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What motivated a young girl from a desert region to swim in the world’s oceans?
Bhakti Sharma: It was my parents’ wish that their child should be involved in an extracurricular activities apart from studies. Since my mother was a swimmer herself, she decided to teach me her sport. We never started off with a goal of me becoming a professional swimmer. It was just an activity in the beginning.

When my mother saw that I was doing well, she started making me participate in district-level competitions and then I started qualifying for state level and eventually, I competed at the national level. When I was 14 years old, my mother told me about the English Channel – whatever little she knew – and asked if I wanted to try it. I said yes, as I though it would be a good change from pool swimming and the adventure excited me. In the year 2004 I started training in a local pool which was kept open only for me during winter. My mother and I used to be the only ones there and I started my training for my first sea swim which took place in December 2004 in Mumbai.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How can you train in a warm-weather, warm-water part of the world and successfully swim in cold-water, cold-weather places like the English Channel and Arctic Ocean?
Bhakti Sharma: Like I said, I started my first ever training for open water itself during the winter, since during summers I was swimming with other people for competitions in short distance. And since we knew that English Channel was going to be cold, we requested the pool at a school to keep the pool open just for me during winter. My city experiences really cold winters and the few pools that we have shut down from October to February, the winter season. So they honoured my request by handing us over the key to the pool. Basically I trained in my city when everybody else used to stop swimming. In that way, I was lucky to have at least that much experience of swimming in winter.

But the temperature here in winter wasn’t low enough to make me ready for a swim in the Arctic. So for that particular swim, one day we poured 12,500 kilos of ice in a swimming pool trying to bring the temperature as low as possible to test myself. That’s how I trained for Arctic or rather tested myself.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What mental preparation do you do to prepare for your swims?
Bhakti Sharma: I try not to read or know too much about the dangers of the swim that I am going to undertake. I believe that mind has its own way to scare you out with the information that you provide it. So I make sure that my preparation is best I can do and leave the rest to fate, destiny or God, whatever one may like to call it. For example, I did not read the book English Channel Association sends to make you aware about the dangers of the swim.

Apart from that, I read a lot, I meditate. That’s the most important mental training I undergo. And I always go for my final swim with a mindset to not quit, come what may.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: What are you focusing on or thinking about during your ice swims?
Bhakti Sharma: During a cold swim, my focus is only on the next stroke that I am going to take rather than thinking about the distance I have left to go or how much time has passed by.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How long did you swim in the pool filled with 12,500 kg of ice?
Bhakti Sharma: For an hour.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you describe that pool swimming practice with ice?
Bhakti Sharma: I started off with a dive in the pool. There were pieces of ice floating in the water and I felt like I have a mini Antarctica to myself. There was media present for the swim and they were stopping me for a click or two and I had to explain them how difficult it was for me to be in there and stopping regularly would prove dangerous. As far as I can remember, the only problem I had was a prickly feeling through my body because of the cold. Apart from that I was doing well and there was a doctor to check my pulse every now and then.

After the swim, I started shivering a lot and rushed in for a hot shower and that’s where things started going south. We didn’t realize that taking a hot bath immediately would give me a temperature shock. After the bath, I started shivering frantically and couldn’t stand or sit straight. The doctor was about to inject me with something that I cant remember now but I refused since after a while I started feeling better. Though I kept shivering for hours straight, everything else was normal.

It was a good experience.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Few people outside of India understand the Gateway of India swims. Can you describe these swims? What is the water temperature and water conditions? What are the currents?
Bhakti Sharma: There are numerous swims that happen to and from Gateway of India. The most popular is the 5 km Sunk Rock to Gateway swim. It is a race that happens every year.

I did two swims in the Arabian Sea at Mumbai: 16 km from Uran Port to Gateway of India and 36 km from Dharamtal Port to Gateway of India.

The second one is considered a test swim for any Indian who aims to swim the English Channel. Although the water is not cold as it is in the channel but the distance is same and it gives the swimmer an idea about sea swimming.

The water temperature should be between 16-20 Celsius degrees which is nice and warm. But the water is really murky. Brown in colour, it is polluted due to the traffic of ships and ferries and lot of sewage dumping. It is a busy route. The currents are quite similar to English Channel and they get stronger in a small bay area. The swim usually starts at midnight; mine started at 3 am.

I came out with two little fishes in my costume after the swim along with a lot of filth.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You swam 72 km with your mother and a friend. Please describe this 16 hour swim. How long was each person’s swimming leg (1 hour)? Did you hit some currents? You swam an average of 4.5 km per hour so this is very fast,

Bhakti Sharma: Yes, we did a two-way relay swim of Dharamtal Gateway. We were a team of 3 swimmers: me, my mother and Priyanka, a fellow swimmer. We did this as a preparatory swim for the English Channel. We were originally aiming to do the Channel two way also.

Each person’s swimming leg was an hour so each of us got a turn to swim every two hours. It was a nice and smooth swim and we made it in such great time due to the amazing boatman we had. He was a local fisherman and knew the water at the back of his hand. He scheduled the swim in such a way that we got favorable currents throughout.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: In 2007-2008, you were very active swimming outside of India. How many miles did you travel during that time? Where did you stay? How was it living outside of your home for so long? Where did you train? Was your mother with you all the time?
Bhakti Sharma: I never actually looked at it in terms of how many mile I was travelling but now that y0u have brought it to my attention, I’ll try to keep a tab of it now. It is a very interesting angle to my swim journey. Although I can’t give you a number, I can say that I was travelling a lot.

For the swims in USA I stayed at my aunt’s place in Florida and at various motels for the Swim in San Francisco and Key West.

I love travelling so I was never homesick. The idea of seeing a new country always excites me. I used to train for all the swims at the local beaches. Like for the swims in USA, I used to train at a beach right outside my aunt’s condominium. Yes, my mother always always travels with me.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: You live in a desert area, but you swim in the Arctic Ocean. How do you prepare your body and your mind for such a cold-water swim.
Bhakti Sharma: Because I live in an area, which doesn’t have a sea, let alone a cold one, my main training always constitutes of more mental than physical. I have never undergone professional training for open water since it isn’t available. So my training was mostly intuition and calculation based and regrettably I have injured my shoulders too due to over exertion. But like I said, I am lucky that we have winter in my city so that gives me an advantage over anybody who lives in a tropical weather throughout the year.

I personally like swimming in cold water rather than really hot ones like in Florida or the Keys. So that helps too. Currently, meditation is helping me a lot for preparing my mind and maintaining focus.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you describe how to traveled to the Arctic Ocean?
Bhakti Sharma: I have been wanting to do a swim in the Arctic for quite sometime, but we were unable to find a location. We wanted to make sure that the place where I swim is legally allowed and there is somebody to certify my swim. My mother searched the Internet for two years, but couldn’t find anything. In the meanwhile we took on the project of doing a relay English Channel swim- the three of us. There at Dover, we met a team from Iceland who had also some to do a relay. We got talking and shared my desire to swim in the Arctic. Luckily they happened to be a part of the Icelandic Swimming Association and invited us to come to Iceland to do the swim and agreed to certify it too. So that’s how I travelled to Iceland and did my swim off Grimsey Island in Iceland. We took a ferry to reach there, and the ex mayor of the island took his boat to assist me during the swim.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Were you nervous when you dove into the cold water?
Bhakti Sharma: I was not nervous since I had done two three practice swims in the sea before we left for Grimsey. So I was pretty confident.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: Can you describe your Swim to Educate Program?
Bhakti Sharma: It is going to be a world record of swimming the longest distance ever swam in Antarctica. I am aiming for 2.5 km.

Since my swims have brought me a fair amount of popularity, I wanted to leverage it to help a social cause. The conditions of girls and their education in my state, Rajasthan is really poor. The statistics are bad. So I decided to dedicate this world record to all the girls who dare to dream. As the swim would get enough attention from the media and public, it would help raise awareness about the issue. I am also raising funds through crowd sourcing, and a part of which would go to a non-profit organization working for girl child education. I just want people to see this swim as an example of what girls can do and they need to get rid of the gender bias.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How are you proceeding and promoting this program?
Bhakti Sharma: I am in touch with both local and national media. A social media plan is in place too for the promotion of the swim and I am doing a lot of talks and awareness programs throughout the country.

Daily News of Open Water Swimming: How can people inside and outside of India help you?
Bhakti Sharma: They can go on to my website or Facebook page, share the word about my campaign and donate to support it.

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