Updated: March 22, 2021 6:53:10 pm
Upon setting her foot on the shores of Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad’s Goli Syamala stood tall and proud. On Friday afternoon, the 47-year-old achieved the unique feat of successfully swimming across the Palk Strait, a distance of over 30 miles through open sea between Sri Lanka and India, in 13 hours and 45 minutes.
Speaking to indianexpress.com over the phone from Rameswaram, before heading home, she said she wanted to swim across the Palk Strait in 10 hours. “I crossed the Sri Lankan waters in 5 hours. The Indian side was very rough. I struggled a lot due to strong currents.”
Back in 2004, Bula Choudhury, who is a former national women’s swimming champion, had achieved the feat at the age of 34.
Even as a boat with a 14-member crew, including a doctor and observers from the Swimming Federation of India, followed her through the open seas, Syamala says she never thought of giving up.
“The waves kept pushing me back and forth. It was a do-or-die situation and I never doubted myself. I had only Dhanushkodi in my mind,” recalls Syamala. Instead of breaking for refreshment every half-an-hour, Syamala preferred breaks every hour. “I preferred liquid diets like watermelon juice, water, and home-made energy drinks. The focus was on finishing in the best time,” she adds.
A mother, wife, entrepreneur, and proprietor of an animation company in Hyderabad for over 10 years, mounting losses had forced Syamala to shut shop and turn to a life of peace and calm. Considering that women of her age often face health issues, Syamala, who was phobic to even knee-deep water, had joined a summer camp and learnt swimming in 2016. Soon, she developed a passion for swimming and started enquiring about competitions.
Friday’s achievement for her is the accomplishment of a dream she nurtured since 2019, a year she could make her mark at various open water competitions. That year, she swam across river Krishna in Vijayawada, river Ganga in Patna, and river Hooghly in Kolkata, apart from taking part in the national open-sea swimming championship at Porbandar in Gujarat, and in the World Masters Championship organized by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), at Gwanju in South Korea.
“I had a dream run in 2019. I worked hard and trained 8 to 10 hours a day for Ram Sethu (Palk Strait) but at the last minute, I could not go because of the coronavirus pandemic,” says Syamala. She started training again in November 2020. “To pick up again from zero-level strength, train amid restrictions, and to be ready in four months to swim for nearly 14 hours across the sea is no joke,” she stresses with a giggle.
Syamala does not have a personal trainer and did extensive research on the internet to work towards her goals. When she learned of senior IPS officer Rajiv Trivedi’s achievements of swimming across the English Channel, the Palk Strait, and Straits of Gibraltar, Syamala contacted Trivedi, who is presently the director-general of Telangana Prisons.
“In his busy schedule, he would go through my daily reports of training and workouts that I used to send him via WhatsApp. He was kind enough to give me corrections, suggestions and a lot of encouragement,” says Syamala.
In 2012, Trivedi swam across from Sri Lanka to India in 12 hours and 30 minutes.
She has had her share of despairing experiences as well, especially revolving around her gender and age. Women can have the pool for training only for a limited time, she says, adding, “women my age are considered not fit to take part in open water competitions”.
All that has only helped her stay motivated and determined in achieving her goals, one after the other. Finding a balance between her passion and the responsibilities towards family has also been a challenge. “There are many challenges for a woman following her passion. If everything comes easy, then what is the fun?”
A post-graduate in Sociology, Syamala now runs a playschool to fund her passion. Her message to others: “Decide what you want and work hard for it. Expect no one to motivate you or decide for you.” She has now set her eyes on swimming across the English Channel next.
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