If you told my teen self that someday I’d undertake a gruelling 15-hour swim in chilly 16-degree water, I’d have laughed.
But 6 months ago I did just that, becoming the first British Asian woman to swim The English Channel!
Going into the swim, I was terrified. It’s not like normal swimming. A 21-mile-long swim, yet rules stated that I couldn’t stop at any time. So, no matter how tired I was from swimming, or how much pain I was in from the jellyfish stings, I had to keep going. Food even had to be passed to me by a long pole from the boat as physical contact was disallowed. To say it was challenging is an understatement.
I fell in love with the idea of swimming at a very young age. Fortunately, my supportive family would take me to lessons and stand poolside cheering me on. However, when I became a teenager, things changed and like most women, I became conscious of my body changing. It didn’t help to hear negative comments from some of the Asian community questioning ‘should she be in a swimsuit in front of boys?’.
It was a very difficult moment for me. I was torn between the sport I loved and my own thoughts and beliefs.
But I chose to persevere; I began controlling the things I would say to myself and even wrote down 5 positive things about myself every-day. I maintained this strength during my channel training. During an Asian radio station interview, a caller expressed that they didn’t think it was right to swim in a swimsuit in public pools, calling my parents irresponsible for allowing me to swim. But Confucius once said, ‘He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right!’ and this messaged inspired me to carry on.
I remember preparing for my 6-hour qualifier one day, worrying I’d drown or fail. After an hour and a half, frightened as the wave kept pushing me under, I waved for my coach to pull me out. I felt like a failure. I was devastated. I went home that evening and with tears streaming down my face I looked back at everything I had achieved so far. Realising my problem were the thoughts in my mind, I shook off the doubts and the next morning completed my 6-hour qualifier! I was so proud.
Not too long after this I swam the English Channel, 40 years after the first ever British Asian man!
Swimming is an amazing sport but not enough women participate. The Amateur Swimming Association report female participation from ethnic minorities to be just 7%. Not only a great way to stay fit, but regular swimming can lower stress/anxiety levels and improve sleep patterns. It empowers women through its physical and mental benefits.
Swimming helped me become more confident in my own skin and believe in myself, especially in male-dominated situations.
I used this confidence to become a founder of my own award-winning childcare company.
Swimming the Channel raised £155,000 for charity to empower young women in the Indian sex slave industry to have better futures. This is a quote I received from one of the girls:
‘I was trafficked and sold by my father’s friend to a brothel in West Bengal where I was repeatedly raped by 10-12 men in one night so I could be moulded to the horrendous act of sex work. I am thankful to Leah who provided 100% of my education, counselling and livelihoods training. I add her to my prayers every night.
‘When women support each other, incredible things happen.’
Without swimming I could not have helped her.