A blur of fluorescence bobbed in inky waters. Thundering waves drowned the faint voice singing hits from Dil To Pagal Hai. These were the only signs for the pilot boat anxiously following the 16-year-old swimming-machine Rupali Ramdas Repale in Cook Strait's icy, choppy waters.Between dangerously dehydrating mouthfuls of brine, the petite girl refused her father Ramdas' appeal to give up. The original target of swimming 26 km, thrown to truant winds—often reaching 35 knots—contrary to predictions of a calm sea on March 9. When Rupali touched land at Owhiro Bay, after a punishing 19 hours and 44 minutes, she'd covered an unintended and stupendous 80 km.
Rupali braved the odds, only because she knew that her cash-strapped father, who barely makes Rs 5,000 a month through his phone booth, couldn't afford another trip. It was now or never. Aborting the attempt meant killing the dream of Rupali conquering world's seven major straits before completing 16.
And she's done precisely that. Today, her proud father waves a fax message from New Zealand's minister of sport, Murray McCully, congratulating her "entry into Guinness Book as the youngest person, to successfully swim six of the world's seven straits or channels" (though the Guinness office in London couldn't corroborate that). She has swum the English Channel, Palk Strait (between Sri Lanka and India), Straits of Gibraltar (off Spain), Australia's Bass Strait, and two-way between Mumbai's Gateway of India and Dharamtar (78 km) which, though not part of the world's major waterways, according to Ramdas, "qualifies in terms of distance". R. Kutraleeswaran of Tamil Nadu has made it to the Guinness Book as the youngest boy to swim the major waterways. Rupali will be listed in the female category.
Coach Rajendra Palkar, who's helping Rupali gear up for triathlons at Singapore's Asian championships in June, boasts: "After the games, she will prepare for Panama Canal and a two-way on English Channel." Ramdas' final goal—the triathlons at the Sydney Olympics. Maharashtra's 'Sagar Kanya', though, is less of a dreamer, more of a realist. "Olympics is his dream. I take things one at a time."
Save for an aberrant indulgence, purple nailpolish, this child-woman's life is dictated by a gruelling routine—40-km cycling, 15-km running and hours of swimming daily. Too tired for friends, she listens to Hindi film hits in her spare time. With no ambitions save her father's, and neither Olympian Mark Spitz nor Padma Shri Mihir Sen as role models, the Std-XI commerce student at Mumbai's Kelkar Vaze College just manages to scrape through exams.
As her mother Rekha, an employee with Employees' State Insurance Corporation, notes: "When she was five, we used to send her by autorickshaw alone for her swimming practice even before sunrise. As a mother, sometimes I've been traumatised by the burden of our dreams on her, but....she's mature beyond her years." Even when abroad, chasing her manager-father's dreams, she 'handles everything'. "Despite all our quarrels, I still depend on her for translation," laughs her father who, when he was a mathadi worker (cleaner and driver), used to take Rupali swimming, while he worked on his body-building schedule. The family's star, Rupali's photos are plastered all over the tiny PCO, which is named after her.
Fame has not eroded Ramdas' humility. Says he: "I am a toota-phoota admi. But how many fathers can claim to have laid the world at their child's feet before she's 16? Her stamina is God-given. I will slave for her for four more years. " Her English Channel glory cost the family jewellery, and Ramdas admits to taking loans of over Rs 9 lakh for the record-breaking trips and expensive equipment.
Perhaps this is the prod to Rupali's determination. A determination well in evidence during her swim in Wellington's Cook strait. "My father and I spent three days waiting for the weather to clear (existing on a shoe-string budget of no more than NZ$ 9 daily). When I started, the sea was calm for three hours. I covered half the planned distance," recalls Rupali. But the next 16 hours were a nightmare dipped in icy brine. "I could barely swallow my energy drinks. I was swimming against the current, on the same spot for hours. I could make out the destination North Island. So close, yet so far. Temperatures outside were 14 to 18 degrees, the water must have been 8 degrees." As New Zealand's media asked how she managed it, the usually taciturn Rupali blurted: "Because I couldn't feel anything". She'd lost 8 kg, dehydration and mild hypothermia had set in. But Rupali is proud of having been "the youngest of the 36 people to have crossed the Cook Strait among the 1,200 who tried."
The English Channel cross-over was equally spectacular. And heart-rending. A postal mistake delayed the Channel Swimming Association's nod. When it came, 12-year-old Rupali was severely underweight—just 30 kg. Hence, she was put on a crash diet, in reverse. Her daily intake included pork, two packets of butter.... In a fortnight, she gained 12 kg. This, while Rupali had subsisted on a single shared meal a day with coach Subash Sule, and Ramdas, when awaiting the go-ahead. After Rupali was dragged out of the channel, the association banned channel swimming for under-16s.
This dare-devil crossed the Bass Strait two years ago in a shark-cage. "Only the top of the cage was open. The waves were wild. My head was knocked against the sharp grill, my toes torn against it. I couldn't see the boat. I was waving and shouting. I saw a snake bob its head at me. I was terrified. They found me half-an-hour later." But there were cherished moments too. Dolphins prancing alongside in Cook Strait, perking her flagging spirits, even as a petrel, mistaking her for a fish, pecked her toe. Or when, moved admirers rushed, business suit et al, to carry her in victory out of the sea.
"Long-distance swimming attracts the funds," says Ramdas Rao, aquatics correspondent, Times of India. Perhaps that accounts for the petty politicking Rupali is subjected to in swimming circuits. Some associations cite her absence in pool events as a 'disqualifica-tion' for nominations to government awards, rues her mother.
Though confident she will swim through her trials in May, her team comprising Dr Dilip Nadkarni, dietician Nivedita Saraf, athletics coach Bala Gobind, intend to provide her with a cycling coach. And teach her meditation to combat contest blues. Ramdas is trying for a resident permit in Australia or New Zealand for specialised training, even as he anticipates a Rs 20-lakh tag to his Olympian dream. Only then, he believes, will his water-baby come of age.