Earlier this month, on 2nd September, 64-year-old Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the protection of a shark cage. The American clocked 53 hours in what was her fifth attempt at the 110-mile (177 kilometers) stretch from Havana to Key West.
What Nyad achieved was quite remarkable and commendable; her perseverance and grit finally paid off, especially after she was told she would never be able to swim after being diagnosed with a heart ailment at the age of 17.
Now while we all seem to remember Nyad’s accomplishment fondly (perhaps because it was in the recent past) and take inspiration from it, we quite simply forget that it was on this day, 53 years ago, that India’s greatest long distance swimmer Mihir Sen crossed the English Channel, and in the process became the first Asian to do so.
Swimming a distance of 31 miles (50 km) from Dover to Calais on September 27, 1958, Sen successfully crossed the Channel (after first failing to do so in 1955) in 14 hours and 45 minutes at the age of 28. Sen had weighed up the idea of swimming from England to France after American Florence May Chadwick became the first woman to swim the Channel both ways in 1951.
Sen, a barrister at the time, was awarded the Padma Shree in 1959 by our then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. But as a man with a deep-rooted thirst for adventure, he did not stop there. Aged 36, he set out to do the unimaginable – to swim the seven seas across the five continents in one calendar year.
In 1966, he began by swimming across the snake and shark infested waters of the Palk Strait. He completed the 22-mile (35 km) stretch from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Dhanushkodi (in Tamil Nadu) in 25 hours and 36 minutes. Soon after, in turbulent conditions, he swam the 25-mile (40km) stretch of the Strait of Gibraltar – in a protective net – that connects Europe to Africa, in eight hours and one minute.
Sen followed that by swimming in the Golden Horn; first across the 45-mile (72 km) stretch of Dardanelles in 13 hours and 55 minutes and then across the Bosphorus (Istanbul Strait) that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. He finally finished his grand tour by swimming the length of the Panama Canal between North and South America in 34 hours and 15 minutes.
Sen’s love for adventure did not end there. He went on to become the brainchild behind sailing expeditions, notably a trip to Indonesia and a jaunt between Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the Andaman Islands. After earning the unique distinction of being the first man to swim across the five continents, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1966 by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for his excursions across the ‘ponds’.
But that is when his troubles followed him like a bad penny.
A lawyer who learnt his practice in England, Sen turned businessman. As a silk exporter in Calcutta, he seemed to be doing fairly well for himself, until a dodgy political battle in the ’70s meant that he ended up losing everything and his company filed for chapter eleven (insolvency).
Suffering from both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, the man who put India on the world’s swimming map died aged 66 in 1997. In a time when there were no wetsuits, Sen showed unnatural levels of endurance (in choppy waters at that) and lived life on the edge. Yet he met with a lonely death.
The most disquieting part of the whole situation is that it did not take long for the nation (or the Government, who did not offer any monetary support during his suffering) to forget the legendary swimmer’s achievements.
And the sad reality is that our collective amnesia is far worse than the serious diseases that afflicted Mihir Sen.