Arati Saha, the First Asian Woman to swim across the English Channel
Arati Saha was in Indian long-distance swimmer, known for being the first Asian woman to swim across the English channel in 1959. Her unconventional career choice, in a then ‘male-dominated’ field, makes her unforgettable. From being only 19 when she swam across the English Channel, to becoming the first women awardee of the Padma Shri her athletic career was lined with multiple achievements. On her 80th birthday, today here’s looking back at the life she lived.
Started at 4
Born in West Bengal on 24 September 1940, she started swimming at the age of 4. Her father Panchugopal Saha served in the armed forces. At the age of two, she lost her mother. She was then raised by her grandmother in North Kolkata. When she reached the age of four, she would accompany her uncle to the Champatala Ghat for a bath where she learned to swim. Seeing Arati’s affinity for swimming, her father admitted her in the Hatkhola Swimming Club. Here she was discerned by India’s first Asian Games gold medalist, Sachin Nag who trained her in his mentorship. In 1946, she marked the beginning of her career by winning the gold in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition.
Between 1946 and 1956 she participated in several competitions across the country and at the state level. She competed in the 100 metres freestyle, 100 metres breaststroke and 200 metres breaststroke event. She won 22 state-level championships in West Bengal. In a National Championship held in Mumbai in 1948, she won silver in 100 metres freestyle and 200 metres breaststroke and won bronze in 200 metres freestyle. In 1949 she set an all India record. In 1951, Arati went on to break her contemporary Dolly Nazir’s all-India record by creating one in 100m breaststroke.
Her international career began when she represented India in the 1952 Summer Olympics at Helsinki, being one of the four Indian sportswomen from the contingent. She represented India in the 200m breaststroke event along with Dolly Nazir. Although she didn’t make it to the podium, the sole act of reaching the Olympics was commendable, given the poor rate of female literacy, nourishment and representation of women across career fields in India.
Her Feat at The English Channel
The English Channel runs between Southern England from Northern France and links the southern part of the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It is called “Mount Everest of Swimming” because of the length of the crossing, cold temperatures and the dangers of the journey. Being famous for its precarious route, the channel attracted many participants worldwide. Arati got the first inspiration to cross the English Channel Channel from Brojen Das. At the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race, Brojen Das became the first among the men and earned the distinction of being the first person from the Indian subcontinent to cross the English Channel. He recommended Arati’s name to the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for the next year’s event.
In pursuit of this field, several other swimmers and others supported her in preparation for the event. Given the high cost of training required as the dearth of facilities in the country, sponsorship was required. Dr Arun Gupta, the assistant executive secretary of Hatkhola Swimming Club took the enterprise in organising Arati’s participation at the event. He arranged exhibits of Arati’s swimming prowess as a part of fundraising programs. Falling short of their required goal, Arati’s supporters took help from the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They finally succeeded to get them on board and helped Arati by arranging the logistics for the trip.
Soon after she began training, swimming for up to 16 hours. In July 1949 she left for England, to compete. The competition witnessed a total of 58 participants including only 5 women from 23 countries. She being the only Asian woman to participate in such a vast competition. Her first attempt to cross the channel failed. Around a month later, on 29 September 1959, she made her second attempt. She crossed the channel in 16 hours and 20 minutes and hoisted the Indian flag on her completion.
Her decision to cross the Channel opened a lot of new avenues for women swimmers of the future. In 1960 she was awarded the Padma Shri, being the first sportswoman to be conferred with this honours. She went on to complete her studies and did an intermediate from City College. She got employed in Bengal Nagpur Railway. Arati Saha died due to acute jaundice and encephalitis, just a month before turning 54, after battling for 19 days straight.
To this day, she remains one of the few Indian women who made their mark in long-distance swimming. Having achieved so much at a young age, she serves as an inspiration to aspiring swimmers across the country.