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How Arati Saha Became The First Asian Woman To Cross The English Channel

On 29th September 1959, Arati Saha, an Indian swimmer, became the first asian woman to complete a successful swim across the English Channel. 

Many of the greatest achievements in history have been made by women who moved mountains and oceans to break barriers that confined them for ages.

One such woman, Arati Saha, not only paved her way through these restrictions but made her mark in history in doing so.

While making this record might have been the highlight but there’s more to her journey than just a 19-year-old becoming the first Asian woman to cross the English channel. Her journey exhumes courage, perseverance, passion, and determination.

Who was the 19-year-old girl fueled with passion and determination?

Arati Saha was born in Calcutta, West Bengal during the British regime of India. Daughter of an armed forces officer, Arati lost her mother at a very young age and was brought up by her father alone.

Her love for swimming developed at the very age of four when her uncle used to take her to Champatala Ghat where she learned swimming. In a time when women were not even educated, Aarati’s father not only recognized her interest in swimming but also gave her a swift push towards her passion and dreams and started getting her trained.

In 1946, at just the age of 5, Arati won the gold medal in 110 yards freestyle at the Shailendra Memorial Swimming Competition. This was just the start as Arati still had miles to swim.

Arati Saha, born to swim

In her early years as a swimmer, Arati won several state-level championships. She won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal itself.

Did you know, she even went on to break Dolly Nazir’s all-India record when she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100 meters breaststroke at the 1951 West Bengal state meet. And that is not all, she even set new state-level records in 100 meters freestyle, 200 meters freestyle and 100 meters backstroke.

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Arati then set her eyes on a bigger target, the 1952 Summer Olympics. She was one of the four women participants and also the youngest member of the lot.

The inspiration behind Arati’s cross of English Channel

There is always an inspiration behind every dream. For Arati it was Brojen Das, the first person from the Indian subcontinent to cross the English Channel. Watching Das’s Victory, Arati saw a dream right there and then- she was there in Das’s place.

Arati wrote to Brojen Das congratulating him on his victory. And much to any fan’s surprise, she got a reply from her idol. He replied back stating, she too shall be able to achieve it.

This one simple line meant a lot to the young swimmer, that push from her inspiration was enough to have her moving towards her goal.

Das also then proposed Arati’s name to the organizers of the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for next year’s event. After being recommended, Arati was all set and jumped started on her training to cross oceans to reach her dream.

The journey to the English Channel

On 24 July 1959, Arati left for England along with her manager Dr Arun Gupta. After some basic practice, on August 13, she started her final practice at the English Channel. During this time, she was mentored by Dr Bimal Chandra, who was also participating in the race.

A total of 58 participants including 5 women from 23 countries took part in the competition.

The big day finally arrived but it did not get off to a good start. Arati’s pilot boat did not arrive on time and she had to start 40 minutes late. Arati missed the favourable weather conditions and faced a strong opposing current when she was just five miles from the English coast. But Arati was not the one to give up so easily.

After struggling for the next six hours against the current, Arati had to finally quit under pressure from her pilot.

Arati Saha was not one to give up in the face of failure

On 29 September 1959, with her never-give-up attitude and with the philosophy of not letting one failure stop her, Arati started preparing for a second attempt, only 5 days after her 19th birthday.

Starting from Cape Gris Nez, France, she swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes, battling tough waves and covering 42 miles to reach Sandgate, England.

And as they say, your dreams only don’t come true when you stop trying. With her determination and perseverance, Arati was successful in her second attempt.

Reaching the coast of England, she hoisted the Indian flag, marking yet another victory not just for our country but for all the women who dared to dream and follow those dreams, be it across the ocean.

That day Arati did not only achieve a milestone but she also made history by becoming the first not just Indian, but the first Asian woman to cross the English Channel.

Arati Saha, a name to never be forgotten

Arati was awarded a Padma Shri in 1960, becoming the first Indian sportswoman to receive the honour.

Unfortunately, Arati passed away just at the age of 53, days before her 54th Birthday due to jaundice, bringing the curtains down on a glorious chapter in Indian swimming.

In 1999, to honour her achievement and conquest of the English Channel, the Department of Posts issued a postage stamp in her memory.

On September 24, 2020, Google paid tribute to the legendary long-distance swimmer on her 80th birthday with a doodle.

Arati Saha's 80th Birthday

Arati Saha’s crossing of the English Channel started as just a dream of a young girl, a dream that she would move mountains and cross oceans (literally) to make it true.

In an age when women were not free to follow their passion, Arati became not only an inspiration to many girls but also a proof that the road to your dreams might come with hurdles and failures, but if you keep trying there is no force strong enough to stop you from achieving it.

Image credit: Google/Wikipedia

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Mrigya Rai

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