Surfing’s biggest moment in India might well be when Priyanka Chopra is seen in the Baywatch movie next year. But quietly, three of Indian sport’s fittest bods are riding the waves on one of Chennai’s pristine beaches. Squash’s decade long champ Joshna Chinappa, India Test opener Murali Vijay and former World Championship medallist in badminton doubles Ashwini Ponnappa have each given a try to taming the threatening rips and breaking waves at Kovalam beach’s Covelong Point surfing facility on India’s east coast these last few years, making surfing the avant-garde recreation of India’s top sportspersons.
You would expect fitness’ reigning celebrity deity Milind Soman to have dropped by to catch a wave – and he has indeed.
You’d reckon Matthew Hayden the big Aussie who played IPL in Chennai and takes off on Tasman coast with his surf board and fish rods, would definitely have given it a go. And you’d guess Indophile Jonty Rhodes, a perpetual adventurist, to have sniffed out this sea corner of India. But Joshna, Ashwini and Vijay have swooshed surfing right into the heart of India’s sporting fraternity – more are expected to follow.
Fit bods first streamed into Indian cable televisions glamorously through Baywatch and the red trunks. But even as Indian sport shaves off the bulges from its ranks and acquires lean muscle, surfing – incidentally an Olympic discipline at the 2020 Tokyo Games – is the latest in recreation and rehab even.
Ashwini took a day-trip to Chennai last month and headed straight to Covelong having heard about the surfing haunt from friends. “I was there for a day and went to the beach directly. It’s the most fun I’ve had, but it’s quite a bit of a workout,” says the Coorgi, who trains at Bangalore and Hyderabad alternately.
Known for her devotion to fitness – needed for covering the back court from where she has a mean smash, whipped at some of the fastest speeds in women’s badminton – Ashwini was bound to be attracted to surfing. However even half an hour on the board catching waves winds up being a colossally intense workout — not one Ashwini minds.
“I ended with sore muscles after my first try. But I definitely want to try this as part of fitness work. It’s good for the core, and I am hooked,” she said. Wary of water on her face initially, and not the surest of swimmers, Ashwini was initially cagey. But as soon as she negotiated the shallow waters and the baby waves – feet apart and bent at knees, hands steering the balance, she was excited and knew this wasn’t the last time she’d be strapping on the board to the ankle.
Having overcome the fear, and the beach being just an hour’s flight away from Hyderabad, Ashwini hopes to be a regular.
Squash champ Joshna Chinappa has always freakishly pursued fitness – given her sport demands exacting amounts of strength and agility from its practitioners.
She was on the fitness treadmill right from when she went to play the British Open junior finals a dozen seasons ago, but she heads out to Covelong in her hometown, mostly owing to her love of the water.
She first fetched up a year ago for a one-off lesson from Covelong’s inspirational instructor Murthy Megavan. Murthy, son of a fisherman and abandoned by his father, took to the sport starting off on a wooden window plank, but has now a hundred surf boards at his centre – some coming from donations of foreign enthusiasts.
On her first ride, Joshna would lose balance and fall off, almost hurting her foot.
“It’s very hard. I fell off, but got back on and gave it another go. I used to think I have great balance in my sport, but after the first time surfing I realised I couldn’t even get up and stand on the board,” she laughs recalling the first fumbles.
Surfing needs an all-round supple body, but demands some superior upper body fitness to start out. Lying flat on the board, surfer typically paddle into deeper waters first, move to squatting in half position and then with an almighty strain on the leg stand on the board, taming the rips.
“I’d hurt my leg first time, but I returned because all I cared for was that my friends would see me standing on that board,” she laughs. “It felt like I’d conquered the world because it’s a challenge to come down a wave,” she says, adding that the general level of strength for anyone trying out has to be high. “The hard part is staying on the board, and we’re just the elementary level. Imagine the pros,” she says.
A regular season is too risky still for Joshna to go out surfing given fear of injury, though she insists it’ll be her favourite activity in off-season.
One man who doesn’t bother worrying — also because he’s put in more surfing hours — is India top-order batsman Murali Vijay. Murthy says he’s been coming to Covelong since 2014 and enjoys an easy breezy connect with the sport – not unlike his day job of facing upto quicks with mighty elegance.
“He likes surfing because it calms him down, he’s told me,” Murthy says. “Vijay’s come here before start of major series. He’s good on the board, and finds it equivalent to yoga or meditation,” Murthy says.
Surf season in Chennai is April to September, though Murthy expects more to camp here year-round.
“All the sportspersons who’ve come here are excellent students and respectful of the instructors and the sport. No starry airs, no attitude,” he says. You can’t afford to when striking a good body and leg position and dealing with an oncoming wave.
Ashwini was a quick learner, moving onto the 9 foot board used for Levels 3 and 4 pretty fast. “It’s like breathing comfortably when trekking. Only 10 percent arrive here fit to surf straight away, given the demands on the upper body. It’s great to know Indian sportspersons are top level in fitness,” Murthy says.
Riding the peaks then is just a matter of discipline and technique.