For an ardent swimmer, Samiir Wheaton, a swimming pool has always been the most desired place to splash. Ever since the age of seven, Samiir, contrary to the meaning of his name, which means wind, has befriended waters beyond swimming pools. Until he turned nineteen, Samiir was a regular swimmer. For the next three decades or so, it was as if swimming had abruptly become a distant affair altogether. The years after college and settling into a professional life alongside marriage and the responsibilities of a family, were probably the primary reasons to log off the pool. This is quite a normal trend to give up on your school and college time hobbies once you switch gears from a carefree teenage life to a rather heavily burdened professional and family life which offers time constraints and the usual commitments that come like perks. Suddenly, health and fitness aspects seemed a concept of the past with metabolic changes beginning to take a visible size up.
To add to this, a motorbike injury had devastated Samiir’s knee and hip which demanded replacement and serious medical intervention. Further genetic damage began to take its toll. Lack of exercise had contributed to weight build up. Depressed with the sudden turns life had taken, Samiir felt an urgent need to alter things in his lifestyle. He took to cycling and climbing with a sole purpose to shed the extra kilos accumulated over the years due to medical and other lifestyle reasons.
On a flight, Samiir chanced reading ‘Man v/s Ocean’, a book penned by Adam Walker, who had apparently been through a similar ordeal but bounced back and converted his weakness to his strength. Samiir did not waste a minute. He connected with Adams and threw him a question, “Will you coach me?”
Samiir had shown his grit and perseverance in 2016 when he participated in the triathlon in Thailand coveting the ‘Ironman’ title for himself. This athletic international competition consisting of swimming, cycling and long distance running sequentially perhaps boosted him to propel himself for bigger things in life. Camped in Malta, in April 2018, Samiir found himself swimming in 15 degrees freezing waters of the Mediterranean Sea for six hours at a stretch.
Open Water Swimming was a new invitation to Whaeton, who came to know about the world’s largest river swim competition which takes place annually in the Bhagirathi, which flows past Jonapur, Murshidabad District, West Bengal. This year, being the 75th episode of the event, there was special excitement among the locals as well as the twenty four participants who dared to plunge into the pristine 81km river track which runs at an average speed of 3.5km/hr with unimaginable challenges like upstream currents, high and low tides, whirlpools, chops, mangroves and even bizarre marine creatures which could pose a serious threat to life.
Amidst the fanfare of traditional music drowsed in religious fervour, the swimmers scrambled upon a boat little on August 26, 2018 just before 5 a.m. from Iron Ghat, with locals gazing at the daredevils with eager eyes, bestowing their best wishes for a safe swim. The river, at dawn, had adorned an immaculate look. But what lies beneath the serene waters… only the swimmers would discover once the swim triggers off.
Having reached the starting point, the participants would soon be on their own. Each swimmer is escorted by a boat carrying four boatmen, who would row in shifts, an observer who will maintain a check on the participant’s fair play such that he doesn’t violate any rule like touching the boat and keeping a couple of feet’s distance from the boat at all times and finally and most importantly, a lifeguard who is an equally good swimmer and the most trusted person for the swimmer. His role is the most crucial. Samiir had trusted Anirban Mukherjee, an equally skilled swimmer, cyclist and athlete,for this task.
“The first two hours are always a cakewalk. It is the period after that when almost naturally, the body slinks back as exhaustion creeps up,” chimes Samiir. A routine movement of the arms and legs, salty water involuntarily being gulped now and then, dehydration taking place naturally and the current’s tantrums are more than enough to break anybody’s determination.
Imagine driving a car in the wee hours of a winter morning with everyone asleep and you trying to keep your eyes on the road, maintaining good speed and not blinking an eye. It could become a tedious task. But here, there was Anirban, who throws a squeezy bottle, tied to a string, with a premix of proteins, carbohydrates and salts every thirty minutes for the untiring and spirited Samiir who is seen vigourously cutting through the flooded wild river without any inhibition whatsoever. Anirbhan had another important task to play. It was to constantly keep a vigil on every stroke that Samiir made to notice if there was a change or a dip in energy. He also was responsible to ensure that Wheaton did not get mentally drained. Time to time general questions and brief dialogue ensured that Samiir’s brain was performing normally.
“The first leg of 25% goes off in a jiffy. It is the time after that when you get into stuff that you never thought about,” affirms Samiir as he recalls the words of his British coach and mentor, Adam Walker, who told him never to look at the marathon in its entirety, but to comprehend it as a training session of two hours followed by another session of two hours. This way you are offering yourself fragmented targets which can be easily met. Owing full credit to Walker, Samiir says that his coach also used to say that the current event you are in, is only a part of your training plan for you to meet a higher, bigger and more complex level. So this way you always have a goal to chase, mightier than the one you are handling presently.
Each time fatigue overgrew, Samiir would change his strokes to propel efficiency. The sun had risen and the 29 degree water temperature seemed rather comfortable for the swimmers. Samiir loved the water and so it did not feel challenging even for a minute, nor did the 81 km long water track weigh him down in any way. “It’s a mind game,” chuckles the grey haired Samiir, “one has to feed the mind with only positive thoughts and that will erase all the negative spaces. He says if you love what you do there is no way it can wear you down. The Indian Tricolour fluttering independently on the prow of the boat flourished Samiir’s heart with a totally different high, which in a way catapulted him along the track sending him waves of patriotic essence right through the surging waters. He strongly drove on a sense that he was not alone but as if the entire nation was backing him.
Unfortunately for twelve of the participants, the mid- day sun and teeming marine factors coaxed them to give up their dream of swimming along the river Bhagirathi. Samiir is an experienced swimmer in open waters. He had performed repeated drills not just in pools but in Goan waters too. In each hourly session he would complete a leg covering 4.5 km each day for the first four days. And a distance of 10km on the last day would make him swim for nearly three hours continuously. But this was neither a three hour swim nor was it the friendly Goan seas.
Fed on Mukherjee’s constant support from the boat, regular intake of fluids and crouched on the motivational tips supplied by his coach, Samiir was now listening to the music played by the locals at Behrampur, who were eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the daring swimmers at the closing lines. From dawn to dusk, it was now 5:45 pm and Samiir had swum robustly for over 12 hours and 50 minutes non- stop covering an unbeatable stretch of 81.052 km. By the time he completed the swim, he had burnt over 18,145 calories in the process on the one hand but on the other he had won the hearts of countless tribals, on lookers, the District Officials and also found a special place in the hearts of his family and friends. More than this, there was tremendous gratification in his soul to achieve his heart’s desire and become a reason of motivation to the younger league of swimmers and fitness freaks.
What kept him going for those many hours mechanically, I wondered. “You should think positive and be able to live your dreams,” Samiir proudly sums up his story as he mentions the role of the nutritionist in his sporty journey. Following a strict diet, abstaining from all types of unhealthy food and drink prior to open water swims, regular exercising, hitting the gym and staying focused are a few things that Samiir Wheaton strictly maintains.
When asked, “What is next?” Samiir gleams, “What’s next!!! At 49, I’m still young. I shall not stop, I will aspire to challenge myself to swim in colder waters …”