Bula Chowdhury, once India's undisputed sprint queen in the pool, is today as much of a celebrity in the sea. Hers has been a sporting career spanning 24 years. Just when you believe it's too much for a sportsperson to further push the limit, Bula proves you wrong by yet another foray into salty waters, yet another adventure in some far corner of the globe.
And she has done it again. On July 20 this year, Bula swam the Toroneous Gulf in Greece, an exhausting 26-km sea crawl, and finished best among women in the field (and seventh overall). She timed eight hours and 11 minutes, when most of the men took well over 10 hours. That is her latest feat, not her last, though. Already, she is readying to prepare for a Manhattan Beach onslaught...
Bula came into the spotlight well before her teens when, in 1978, she took part in the fifth age-group aquatic championships in Madras and finished fourth. She is over 32 now, at an age when sportspersons take it easy, get involved in family and matters immediate to home and hearth, and the sporting arena slowly grows distant.
Not so for Bula. Her spirit of adventure, perhaps the urge to be different, remains undimmed. It is evident in the way she flits around her house in Hindmotor, an industrial township near Kolkata. Sitting down for a cup of lemon tea, she is unable to relax. "I find the call of the sea irresistible these days," she says. Earlier it used to be the swimming pool.
Her national 100m butterfly record of 1:06.19, set in Trivandrum in 1984, is yet to be touched. Her India-best performances of 1:05.27 (100m butterfly) and 2:19.60 (200m butterfly), both set at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986, have also not been bettered.
While her contemporaries have long since left the water and settled down to more mundane activities, Bula remains undeterred. This Sahara India employee believes the best is yet to come. While the power game of sprints is a thing of the past - it requires the vigor of extreme youth and the instinct of a killer - patience and endurance have taken over.
A move from sprint to long distance isn't easy. It involves rearranging the mindset, it involves telling yourself that the target comes bigger now, not faster. Distance swimming means strokes through rough waters, and often high seas, tackling strong trade currents. And just when you believe you have made it, you look up and can't see the shore. That's the level of endurance and determination required.
This time it was the 32nd Swimming Crossing of the Toroneous Gulf. This is a 26-km stretch of water between the middle tail that hangs from Greece and the left tail. Organized by the Cultural Youth Association of Nikiti, the annual Crossing began in 1971, when a group of youths of the island,
demonstrated their love for the sea by doing the swim.
"It has been a wonderful experience," Bula says. "This passion of mine, this long distance swimming... It has taken me places. The hotel in Nikiti where I stayed - I came to know I was the first Indian to have stepped into that place. They looked at my salwar kameez dresses and my dupattas, and I had to give away two of my better ones. Makes you feel good inside."
It is this desire for more challenges that separates the good from the great. Bula has crossed the English Channel twice (in 1989 and in '99), then the Strait of Gibraltar in 2000, the Chinmoy Marathon in Zurich last year, the Tyrrhenian Sea (Italy) also last year, and now this. And the
hunger keeps growing.
"I cannot think about leaving the water," she says waving her arms. "I think of the sea nowadays, even in my sleep. I experience the excruciating pain in my arms and shoulders towards the end... You know, nearing the end, I can just think of finishing, somehow, just clambering ashore and falling into a deep, deep sleep. I pray 'let just this one be over.' Yet, every time I am finished with it and have rested, I want to get back in again."
It started in a small pond behind her home, also in Hindmotor, way back before she was even 10. A local coach noticed her talent and gave her lessons in the pond and in the Hooghly river nearby. When she came to Calcutta, she conquered the Indian pool and then dove into the international arena: the SAF Games, the Asian Games, the Asian Championships, friendship meets and more.
With the support of husband Sanjib Chakraborty (they got married in 1993), an accomplished sprinter in his own right those days, Bula as achieved more than perhaps even she had dreamt of. It has not been easy. Their eight-year-old son, Sarabjit, and ageing parents have to be taken care of and there are a multitude of chores to do. But that does not hold Bula back.
"I can't think of anything that does not relate to swimming, I can't think of 'retiring'. Retiring is a bad word - it's not for me, not as long as I can make it happen," she says. No sitting around and waiting for the right moment for Bula Chowdhury. She loves to laugh (mostly giggles) and as long as that child resides inside her she is sure to keep moving - or rather, swimming.