The King of the English Channel
After completing the World Record Swim in 1961.
This year open water swimming (10 km) marked its debut in Beijing 2008, as the newest Olympic sport. The most famous and prestigious open water swimming race is of course Channel Swimming, also known as the “Everest of Swimming”.
Since 1875, 1013 people have successfully swum the English Channel, completing 1418 crossings to date. In comparison, Mount Everest had been climbed 2,049 times.
This is also the golden jubilee of the Brojen Das's crossing the English Channel whose tenth death anniversary also coincides with this year. This is the story of a determined young man who came from a country that has never come close to winning a swimming medal of any colour at even the Asian level; yet it produced a swimmer who took the world by storm around half a century ago.
Brojen Das was an open water swimmer par excellence. He was the 'first Asian' to swim the Channel and the first person to cross it four times. In addition, in 1961, he also created the world record for the fastest swim across the English Channel from France to England- his sole aim was to create the record.
Easily the finest swimmer ever to come out of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal etc.), a region which houses more than one fifth of the world's population.
Born on 9 December 1927 in Kuchiamora village of Bikrampur , Munshiganj, in East Pakistan , now Bangladesh , Brojen was an adept swimmer from his boyhood. The turbulent water of river Ganga (Buriganga) was his first training ground.
Ironically, he first distinguished himself as a short course swimmer. In the East Pakistan swimming competition in 1953, Brojen made a complete sweep of freestyle events: winning 100 m, 200 m, 400 m and 1500 m freestyle events. In 1955, Brojen became Pakistan's national champion in 100 and 200 metres freestyle. He had even made it to the Pakistan's swimming squad for the 1956 Olympics but an injured arm suffered in an accident, ruled out his entry.
Brojen, however, decided to make the transition to the much gruelling long distance open sea swimming a decision which in the long run earned him eternal fame in the annals of swimming history. He made the most turbulent part of the lower Megna River as his training field. His swimming career took a new turn when he got the opportunity to participate in the English Channel Swimming Competition in 1958. Seeing it as the chance of a lifetime, Brojen Das intensified his training. His confidence soared when he finally swam from Narayanganj to Chandpur, a distance of about 46 miles. He also accomplished with credit a non-stop 48 hours swimming spree, covering approx. 60 miles in a Dhaka swimming pool.
Brojen Das 1927 - 1998.
Prior to the English Channel competition, Brojen successfully completed the Mediterranean swimming competition from Capri to Naples. That gave him added confidence and more importantly an opportunity to acclimatise himself with the Oceanic waters.
Brojen arrived in England in June 1958 for the Billy Butlin Channel Swimming Competition. He was the only contestant from South Asia. The swimming began at midnight of August 18 1958 and it came to a close in the afternoon of the next day. 21 out of 30 swimmers had dropped out due to various reasons, mostly due to sheer exhaustion but an undaunted Brojen continued with the strongest determination and joined the ranks of the
heroes crossing the Channel. He not only secured the first position in the competition but also became the first Asian ever to cross the English Channel.
Next year, Brojen again successfully swam the channel and bettered his timing of the previous year. Moreover, he also crossed the Channel from the other direction, England to France as well! His exploits were not confined to the channel: he repeated his last year's success in swimming from the Capri Island to Naples in Italy besides three other long-distance international swimming competitions.
In 1960, he completed a hat-trick repeating the feat for the third consecutive year. Ironically some of his detractors, especially the press of his own country, termed it as a 'failure'.
'Brojenda' as he was popularly called, said in a press interview,
“My fourth Channel swim in 1960 had dragged me down to the bottom of the ladder. I took 14 hours and 44 minutes for my France to England swim. Even in 1958 when I had competed in the Bultin Channel Swim Race in my maiden attempt, after being training in the warm waters of East Pakistani rivers and swimming pools, I had clocked for the same France to England swim, 14 hours, 25 minutes. In 1959, I had bettered my own timing by doing it in 13 hours, 53 minutes. And again the same (1959) year I had further bettered my own time for England to France swim (which is more difficult than the other way round) by doing it in only 13 hours and 26 minutes.
So I was under great pressure. Even the press in Pakistan had started predicting that the “Brojen era” is about to end”.
All this criticism made his resolve stronger. He pledged to himself that in 1961 he would not only better his own timing but also break the Channel record.
“All these thoughts were with me when I jumped into the Channel this year on September 8th for the fifth time to try to set up a world record. I had, during my fifth swim, a good sea to begin with but after midnight I had to encounter very rough seas towards the end, which robbed me of the chances of setting up a new world record. I was very tired after swimming for 11 hours and 48 minutes. It was my best ever timing yet I regarded it as a failure since my goal was setting a new record. And the feeling of failure didn't let me fall asleep. I decided to try again for the sixth time at the next 'Neap Tide'”
(Top) After completing one of his many Channel swims. (Bottom) With an English girl whom Brojen Das trained for
the Channel Swim.
Lasting for four to five days between full moon and new moon, the Neap Tide period comes once a fortnight. And it was generally thought that only during this period the current of the Channel behaved rationally). The next was due in about 10 to 12 days.
“On 21st September, within 12 days of my 5th swim, a record in itself, I plunged again. Nearly the whole of Cap Gris- Nez village had turned out to wish me luck and see me enter the water for the sixth time.”
“In 1958 before competing in the Butlin's Race, I had told the then Pakistan High Commissioner in the UK, that if I did not come out successful, he will have to drag out a dead Brojen Das from the Channel; this resolve was also true during this sixth swim of mine.”
And the sheer determination and single mindedness paid off as Brojen Das made it. He hit the shore after 10 hours and 35 minutes thus breaking the 11 year old record by a good 15 minutes.
That day, Brojen created two records in Channel swimming which were recorded in the Guinness book of World Records. Not only did he cross the English Channel in record time, he crossed it for the sixth time (another record).
Not blessed with the ideal physique normally associated with long distance swimmers, Brojen had a short stature with a height of 5'5”. It was sheer hard work, courage, perseverance and the will to accomplish that resulted in achieving such a feat.
Having achieved every possible distinction, Brojen bid the competitive arena adieu in 1961. Thereafter he coached and trained swimmers both at home and abroad. Many aspiring Channel swimmers, in particular, benefited from Brojen's experiences.
He visited USA in 1964 as advisor to the U.S. Olympic swimming team for the Olympics in Tokyo and during his one month stay he visited different training centres in various states and lectured the prospective swimmers of America for the Tokyo Olympics. He also had the privilege to meet the President of USA, Lyndon Johnson.
Brojen Das also served as the General Secretary of Bangladesh Swimming Federation. Bangladesh government conferred on him the national award in 1976 for his valuable contribution in the field of sports.
A great admirer of art and music, his greatest passion after swimming was movies be it Bangla, Hindi or English and he had many friends and admirers from the film world. Later in his life he was indirectly associated with the production and distribution of many Bangla movies and even acted in one of them.
He was detected to have cancer in 1997 and the brave man who had conquered the tides of the Channel so many times finally lost the last battle, passing away on June 1 1998 at the age of 71. His death sent shock waves throughout the country and the President and the Prime Minister also sent condolence messages.
Easily the greatest sportsman in the history of Bangladesh, Brojen Das is very much revered in the country and his biography is taught in class 8 in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh was part of Pakistan until 1971 and Brojen was honoured by the Government of Pakistan with the “Pride of Performance” award in 1959.
Many Pakistanis still acknowledge feats of Brojen Das as of their own. When South Asian Games were held in Pakistan for the first time in 1990, Brojen Das was invited as an official guest. And he presented medals to the position winners in some of the swimming competitions.
Some of the notable awards and recognitions bestowed on the great man:
-"KING OF CHANNEL" from the Channel Swimming Association of the United Kingdom in 1986
-His name was enlisted in the 'International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame' in 1965; the first Asian
-Life Member, Channel Swimming Association, 1958, U.K.
-Vice President, World Long Distance Swimming Association, Atlanta, USA, 1964.
Brojen Das received many tributes in his lifetime from dignitaries including the heads of states of Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, USA, UK, among others. Perhaps the finest compliment came from the legendary boxer Mohammad Ali, the sportsman of the millennium.
Mohammad Ali met Brojen Das during the second SAF (South Asian Federation) Games in Dhaka in 1985. The great man said, ““You are the 'King of Channel' and I am the 'King of Ring', but I think your achievement is even greater than mine”.
The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in the United Kingdom.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008