American endurance swimmer Diana Nyad set a world record last week, swimming between Cuba and the United States unprotected by a shark cage.
This called for daring, as the waters of Florida and Keys between the Cuban capital, Havana, and Key, West, Florida, are shark-infested.
Swarms of jelly fish are another constant menace to swimmers. What is equally daring is that Nyad happens to be sixty four, an age when many people would find en laps in a swimming pool adventurous.
The marathon feat took three days, Diana Nyad reaching Florida after 52 hours and 54 minutes. She was protected by a team of kayakers and had divers standing by to help, and went without food during the final day for fear that her body would become too cold if she stopped to eat.
Endurance sports such as swimming, ultra marathon running and cross-country cycling call for a very special kind of athlete. Being an Olympic swimmer or runner doesn’t mean that one could succeed at endurance sports, as it requires a different type of physique, training regimen and mindset. News of this achievement takes my mind back to Sri Lankan and Indian swimmers who have swum the Palk Straits, a distance of 36 miles. This doesn’t pretend to be a comprehensive survey, but the list is topped by Vivekanandan Selvakumar Anandan who achieved a record two-way swim between his native place of Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi in South India (total 72 miles) in 1974. It took 51 hours.
A graduate from the university of London, he trained as a lawyer in Sri Lanka, and held several Guinness records, including records for non-stop twist dancing (187 hours), 165 sit ups in two minutes, and treading water for 80 hours. His first swim between Velvetiturai to Point Calimere was in March 1963, with a time of 42 hours.
But his greatest passion was for swimming, and in fact he died while attempting to swim across the English Channel on Aug. 6, 1984. His son Rajan now heads Google India.
His home town was reportedly planning to erect a statue in his honour. It isn’t known if this has been carried out. Another statue was planned for Anandan’s uncle Murugapillai Navaratnaswami, the first Sri Lankan to swim across the Palk Straits. He did this in 1954, taking 28hours to swim from Velvetiturai to Point Calimere, South India.
He was congratulated by the Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India, as well as Queen Elizabeth, and he was garlanded and carried in a procession through the sacred areas of Anuradhapura, in a gesture almost unimaginable today.
His record was disputed by Indian swimmer Mihir Sen, but it was later found out that his swim was only a distance of 23 miles.
Others have followed in their wake. In 1969, the Indian Swimming Association proposed a joint Indo-Lanka Palk Straits swim. Ten Indians and seven Sri Lankans took part. Indian swimmer B. R. Nath finished first, while J. Nanayakkara of Fishtails Aquatic Association was the only Lankan to finish the event.
" The marathon feat took three days, Diana Nyad reaching Florida after 52 hours and 54 minutes "
Arun Balaji, another Indian swimmer, established a world record by swimming the Palk Straits in ten hours forty minutes. Bula Chowdury Chakraborty, a distinguished swimmer who has swum across six seas, as well as being the first woman to swim the English Channel twice, crossed the Palk Strait in 2004, with a time of 13 hours and 52 minutes. She remains the only woman to have done so.
In the 1980s, a deaf-blind-mute endurance swimmer called Taranath Narayan Shenoy managed the feat. At least eleven individual swimmers have swum across the Palk Straits if one includes Nanayakkara who took part in a team event. This survey doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive and there could be more. What remains clear is that only three Sri Lankans have attempted this swim, and that was a long time ago.
Today, Anandan and his uncle Navaranaswamy remain almost forgotten. Though a stamp was issued commemorating Anandan in 2000, few of today’s swimmers and coaches (leave alone the general public) have heard of them, when they should be projected as role models in the realm of sporting excellence. With so much emphasis placed on sports achievement, with goals of winning medals at international events, it’s hard to understand why such endurance events have been totally neglected. Ultra marathon running (beyond the official 42.195 marathon distance), remains neglected.
A few years back, there was a mad rush to create Guinness records, usually by breaking rocks, cement blocks etc. or by riding motorcycles in unusual ways. While any world record may be noteworthy, established endurance sports such as swimming, running or walking are greater achievements as they require a unique combination of human spirit, positive psychology and stupendous physical energy.