Swimming the English Channel is like climbing Mount Everest: Ashwin V Ballal

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In Sep 2015, Team Swimlife swam 63km in the sea across the English Channel from England to France. A tremendous achievement completed in 14 hours and 7 minutes.

Swimming across The English Channel is one of the toughest things for all of humanity. A team of eight Indian amateur swimmers, dreamed it and executed too. They are only the 5th Indian team ever to achieve this feat.

Ashwin V Ballal, one of the Swimlife team members, spoke to Sportjoy’s Amrut Haribhat about his swimming background, the experience of swimming in the Channel and generally about swimming in India.

AmrutHi Ashwin, thanks for taking out time and speaking to SportsJoy. Tell us about your introduction to swimming. When did you start? Who did you train with?

Ashwin – I learned swimming in a summer camp during my school days. However, that skill barely helped me swim the length of a 25 meter pool. In 2010 I registered for a triathlon in South Africa. Online videos made me realize that swimming is quite technical and I was not up to it.

I joined swimming classes in South Africa which helped immensely. I went to India in 2013 and joined Master Batch at Swimlife in 2013. Our coach Satish Kumar has been outstanding.

AmrutHow has your experience with Swimlife been?

Ashwin – We had a lot of fun while training and the whole journey has been memorable. Amazing experience.

AmrutMost of the readers, may have heard about the English Channel but few would know about what it takes to swim across the channel.

Ashwin – English Channel is a water body between England and France. Swimming from England to France is an adventure similar to climbing Mount Everest. The challenge in the swim is the rough sea, extremely cold water and no body suit to fight cold. Swimmers risk Hypothermia (over hydration) while swimming the channel.

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AmrutWhen and how did this thought cross your mind about swimming the English Channel? Is there some kind of a qualification process?

Ashwin – During a warm up ritual, one of our team mates suggested we swim across the English Channel. We all got excited and decided to go for it! As simple as that.

There are no prerequisites. One should know swimming, that’s it.

AmrutCould you tell us about the dietary practices that you had to follow before the event? Have read of some amazing stories of swimmers gobbling up dozens of Pizza’s, chips, sweet rolls etc in a day to consume the needed calories.

Ashwin – Gobbling pizza’s and chips maybe for the young swimmers. Older swimmers like us had to stick to a calibrated diet. We were going to swim in cold water so we had to put on some weight. So yes, pizzas, chips and beer too were part of the diet but in a regulated manner.

AmrutAshwin, our readers would be keen to know how you convinced your bosses (home and office) about swimming in the seas.

Ashwin – I didn’t need to convince my bosses in office as it didn’t really impact work. My wife would train with us (even if she was not part of the channel swimming team) and was very supportive all along. So no problems really.

AmrutTell us all about the BIG Day.

Ashwin – The swim was scheduled tentatively for 10th Sep 2015. Tentatively because weather plays a huge part in the plans.

We arrived in Dover on 30th of August to familiarize with the conditions. Next next morning we got the shock of our lives as soon as we set our feet into the water. It was a chilly 16 degrees.

Our pilot (of the boat which would accompany us) informed us that the weather forecast for 10th Sep and around was bad. He suggested we bring the date in to 2nd Sep. We were clearly under-prepared for 2nd Sep but had no choice.

We arrived at the Dover harbor at 12:30 am (midnight). The swim was flagged off in complete darkness at 2am. Our coach, the true leader that he is, was the first one to take the plunge. It was extremely cold that night with strong winds and high tides. All of us were nervous but quietly confident.

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AmrutWe read about interesting stories around the tidal waves moving swimmers from side to side thus increasing the distance that you swim.

Ashwin – It is true that tidal waves push you from side to side. Our distance was supposed to be 30km but the spring tides and heavy currents made us swim 63km!

The most difficult part of the swim was close the French Coast where the deep waters meet the shallow waters and currents are very high. That region is aptly called ‘The Washing Machine’.

AmrutDid you come across any scary objects or creatures (Sharks, jellyfish)?

Ashwin – I was the luckiest guy in the group. During my first swim, I encountered jelly fishes at multiple points. I had several scars from jelly fist bites from neck to toe. My next swimmer did face a small bunch of jelly fishes. The rest of the team members, unlucky people, saw none!

AmrutHow easy or difficult is relay swimming?

Ashwin – Relay swimming sounds much easier than individual swimming but has a surprisingly lower success rate. This is because people have to sit on the boat for a long time which can cause sickness. Besides, going in and out of the water multiple times exerts the muscles differently causing cramps. Thankfully we had trained for the relay so it worked well.

AmrutHow is the recognition process? Do you receive a certificate post completion?

Ashwin – Yes the Channel Swimming Association awards a completion certificate.

AmrutI have been staying in South Africa and I see there is a lot of emphasis on swimming right from a tender age of less than even three. When did you start swimming and what do you think about the swimming culture in India vis-à-vis other western countries?

Ashwin – I am a firm believer that kids should start swimming early. In fact sports should be a mandatory subject in school. I see that a lot of modern schools in India have started including sports in the curriculum. I hope this makes the next generation of Indians a lot healthier than the current one.

I learned swimming very late in life and so did 3 of our team members.It is certainly a disadvantage to start late.

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AmrutWhen I visit the rural areas in India, I see people swimming with their head up and not really burying their head into the water.

Ashwin – This is very common technique used by people across the world who haven’t learned swimming scientifically. It’s a lot harder to swim like that and tires you faster. It is slower and hard on the shoulders. There is too much use of the shoulders to propel oneself while it should be done by the whole body.

I used to swim like that before I joined swimming classes.

AmrutNon-swimmers often complain about catching cold if they get into water very often. What would be your advice be to them? Okay, kidding, don’t bother to answer that!

Ashwin – Its false and not based on any scientific evidence, hahaha!

AmrutSo what’s in store for this year? Any big targets to be achieved and records to be broken?

Ashwin – One year of hard training is done. This year is a relaxation year. I have not yet planned my next expedition.

Interviewer – Amrut Haribhat. Amrut is an IT professional, an avid sports enthusiast; swimmer, runner, tennis and squash player. He is based in South Africa.

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