Away from the waves

Why did Kutraleeswaran quit marathon swimming which gave him name and fame?

A DECADE has passed since Kutraleeswaran performed the Guinness Book of World Records feat of swimming six seaways in a calendar year. He was 12 then; now he is doing his MS at the University of Texas, Dallas.

"When I look back at 1994, I feel like wow, not bad. I actually did all those stuff. It was fun," said the Arjuna awardee in an e-mail chat.

"It was my first year of international competition. Looking back, the things that come to mind immediately are the Palk Strait and the English Channel. The Palk because it was my first major swim between countries and the longest I did. And the Channel was my dream ever since I took to distance swimming.

"Actually, entering the Guinness hadn't crossed my mind until I swam the above two. Things fell into place thereafter (the State Government funded me completely for the year) and I made it to the Guinness. Frankly, I didn't realise the significance of my achievement then. I was very young. I'm grateful to my family for everything."

After 1994, Kutral, who finished his schooling at DAV (Gopalapuram) and Electrical & Electronics Engineering at Anna University, participated in distance competitions for another three years.

Notable among them were the 81-km (world's longest) open meet in West Bengal (he won gold), Chinmoy meet at Zurich (gold in the junior category), the Bosporus competition (5th among 205 competitors), the Rottnest Channel in Australia twice and was the only Asian selected for the World Series Marathon Competition held in Brazil and the United States.

And then he quit.

"Mmm... Well, I'd put it this way: love for the sport is one thing, being practical is another. I quit due to three reasons. Lack of sponsorship. Each swim trip costs lakhs of rupees. My folks shelled out for a couple of competitions, but that wasn't possible after a point. Companies were reluctant to sponsor marathon swimming for very obvious reasons: it wasn't a popular sport.

"No security. Let's face it, in India there are many stars from lesser-known sport currently leading a not so comfortable life, which is really sad. This may sound mean or selfish, but it is, nevertheless, true. It is nice to sit back and think that I have won a medal for my country. It feels nice to be recognised by the media and the public. It truly feels worth the troubles. But what next? I thought about it. After my time in the sport comes to an end, will these `recognitions' alone suffice? You know the answer.

"I realised education is most important. Well, this indirectly shades my second point about a life of my own. I could manage swimming until my schooling. In college I couldn't afford to miss out on months of classes to train and participate in competitions for which I couldn't even find a sponsor."

But at no point did he regret taking up distance swimming.

"It's not that I'd have become a Sachin, Paes or an Anand otherwise. I was a talented marathon swimmer. I've always belonged to wild waters. The sport has brought me fame and provided me an avenue to prove to the world that I'm capable of something. Let's face it, if it were not for the sport, you wouldn't be interviewing me.

"Unfortunately, the sport is expensive and devoid of monetary rewards in our country. Marathon swimming is very popular in Australia, Italy and the States. In fact, when I was in Italy to compete, the Government offered to adopt me if I would swim for them. I declined. For, pride and satisfaction lie in representing one's own country. And let me tell you, the feeling is unparalleled."

Do you miss the sport? "Of course I do. And, unfortunately I'm at present in a geographical location devoid of a coast."

Any plans to resume? "I'd love to give back to the sport which has given me so much. But in other ways. Probably by training aspiring marathon swimmers. Maybe, in a few years from now."


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