Bhakti Sharma on what it takes to be an open water swimmer

“My mom threw me into the water!,” Bhakti Sharma says with a hearty laugh. Perhaps that is the reason why she is the youngest swimmer in the world to have swum across seven seas, including four oceans. We caught up with Bhakti during her visit to the capital city to speak at LEAP (Leadership Enhancement and Acceleration Programme ) forum at Allianz in Technopark.

This ‘open water swimmer’ from Udaipur in Rajasthan owes it all to her mother, Leena Sharma, a former swimmer. Although Leena hadn’t done open water swimming, she egged on Bhakti to take up that. “She never gives up and always want to do something new,” says Bhakti. In fact, in 2008, Leena swam along with Bhakti across the English channel, becoming the first mother-daughter duo to achieve the feat.

She grew up in Udaipur, better known as City of Lakes. She started off practising in the swimming pool of a hotel, but gave up the sport for want of swimming pools. It was smooth sailing when her school built a new pool. She took to open water swimming at the age of 14. The first successful attempt was crossing a 16-km stretch from Uran Port to Gateway of India in Mumbai. “That was super fun!,” says Bhakti, breaking into that occasional smile. That was just the beginning and many such feats followed (see box), the latest being her successful swim across the Arctic Ocean (August 9, 2010). At every major event, representatives of the respective body organising the event accompany the swimmer in a boat.

Challenges galore

“The swim across the Gulf of Mexico has been among the toughest. It was very hot, I got dehydrated and I was stung by something. My aunt, a doctor, who was travelling in the accompanying boat, gave me an injection. But it was still painful,” she says. Close to her heart is the Swim Around the Rock, an annual open water swimming event in the San Francisco Bay area around the historic Alcatraz Prison. “It was a fund-raising event for cancer patients; also I got to hear many stories related to the prison.”

Bhakti admits: “Open water swimming drains you physically and financially.” Each sea is different, therefore the challenges too. Obstacles come in the form of turbulent waters, temperature variations and life-threatening creatures. On the financial front, Bhakti hasn’t got any sponsorships so far. “Except for a gesture from the Vedanta group, which met half the expenses at one event and Rs. one lakh from the Rajasthan government, I have mostly depended on bank loans to meet the expenses. What comes in the way of sponsorships is lack of awareness. People treat it as an adventure sport and therefore ask, ‘You are doing it because you interested in it. Why should we sponsor it?,” says Bhakti.

The preparations for a swim also include putting on a lot of weight. “You are in the water for 13 to 14 hours and I should have the stamina to stay put for that long. So, I have a lot of milk and cheese for those extra calories! Also, I have to be mentally prepared. Open water swimming is 60 percent mental and 40 percent physical.”

Eyeing the Antarctic

Bhakti is praying hard that she gets enough support before sets out on the toughest swim of all, crossing the Antarctic Ocean. “I need to cover the expenses for the travel, doctors, boat and the like. Where I am planning the swim is a no man’s land. So, it is going to be really tough,” says Bhakti.

She plans to undertake the Antarctic challenge in a year or so, during which she would complete the MBA course she is currently pursuing in Bangalore. “I want to work in the advertising industry,” says Bhakti, who had cleared the CA exam, but quit, for she found “it boring”.

Feats of glory

In 2006, she crossed the English Channel (covered 36 km in 13 hours and 55 minutes); the same year she stood first in the Rapperswil to Zurich marathon event, the youngest among the participants to achieve the feat

Next year she crossed the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.