Over the years, India has produced some world class swimmers who have went on to create various records across the globe. Amongst all those, the one name which always flies, or in this case ‘swims’, under the radar is Bula Choudhury.
The first ever woman to cross the seven seas, Bula Choudhury has been bestowed with both the Arjuna award and the Padma Shri. She has swam across the English Channel not once, but twice. Add to this the fact that she was the first woman to have swum across sea channels off five continents; you would know why she is a legend. And, she achieved all these feats while being allergic to sea water?
Choudhury’s initiation to swimming is a fascinating story in itself. Her father was once going somewhere in a boat when it capsized and sank in the river. He was nearly drowned when a stranger saved his life. At that very point he decided to learn swimming and also made a promise to himself to make his children learn the art of swimming.
Choudhury’s first swimming lesson was when she was just two years old when her father took her to the Hugli River for a swim. She was enrolled in a swimming academy when she was just five, and there has been no looking back ever since. But her journey was never as rosy as it seems. Choudhury had a hole in one of her ears which would frequently cause fungal infections. The doctors advised her to quit swimming, but she was not the one who quits. Instead she persisted and developed herself into one of the best in the business.
Her first national championship was in 1979 when she was just nine years and she completely dominated her age group, winning six gold medals in as many events. She participated in her first senior national events when she was just twelve years old in 1982. Her performance propelled her to the Indian team for Brisbane Commonwealth games later that year. She set a national record in 100m butterfly in 1984 which she bettered by a second in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games. In the Seoul Games, she also registered the fastest time by an Indian in 200m butterfly. She was her brutal best during the 1991 South Asian Federation Games where she bagged six gold medals.
Choudhury’s foray into long distance swimming started in the year 1989. She went on to swim across the English Channel for the first time in the same year. The Arjuna award was bestowed upon her the very next year in 1990. She won the 50 mile Murshidabad long distance swim in1996 and went on to cross the English Channel yet again in 1999, ten years after her first successful attempt.
Her best moment though came five years later in 2004, when she became the first ever woman to cross the Palk Straits in nearly 14 hours. This feat earned her a lot of laurels from across the globe. She went one better in 2005 to become the first woman to swim across sea channels in five continents. Her timing of 3 hours and 26 minutes in completing this 30km long course was an another record.
After her stint with swimming she went on to become an MLA during the period of 2006-2011 with the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. A dolphin lover, she recently collaborated with a fashion brand to launch her own sportswear line called “Five continents byBula”. If the name is symbolic to her achievement of being the first woman to swim across sea channels in five continents, the central figure to the logo is her favourite animal, Dolphin.
It has been long since Choudhury retired from swimming but that has not decreased her love for it by one bit. Though yet not materialised, she has expressed her desire to open her own swimming academy in Kolkata many a times.
From being allergic to saline water to achieving things unheard of in the same waters, Bula Choudhury is certainly an inspiration for generations to come.