Swimming can become a lifelong health-giving routine for many. Image Credit: Unsplash/Efe Kurnaz

Many of us start swimming from an early age, splashing about with friends in primary school – often prioritising the sport just for fun summer play or as a requirement for life-saving purposes. Everyone should know how to swim and keep safe in the water, right? And know how to have fun at the beach too. But, for some, it becomes very close to the heart – the childhood play soon turning into a lifelong health-giving routine that helps one remain fit while being fun and stimulating. Here, we delve into the stories of two such swimmers – for whom the sport is a bit like home.

Arabian Sea on the other side

At 53 years old, Dr Vazhoor Sreenivasan Ajai Kumar, found a way of reconnecting to his childhood self. As a busy medical director and general practitioner (GP) at Al Kamal Medical Polyclinics, he had always prioritised his physical health to keep him going – playing a few games of badminton every morning at the Abu Dhabi Indian Social Centre. But when a new branch opened up, it had a new element that stretched back years in to his past, to a childhood spent splashing about in a coastal town with family – a swimming pool.

Dr Kumar says, “It was a coincidence. I enjoy swimming – I used to swim from childhood. But when I came to Abu Dhabi 37 years ago, I was not that keen. I played shuttle everyday as in the old ISC, there was no swimming pool – but when the new building was inaugurated, it had one and so I started again.”

Dr Vazhoor Sreenivasan Ajai Kumar, Medical director and general practitioner (GP) at Al Kamal Medical Polyclinics
Image Credit: Supplied

His day begins at 5:30 am, driving 10 minutes away to the Abu Dhabi ISC and playing around 4 to 6 games of badminton. Afterwards, he heads to the pool for a refreshing post-workout swim for 20 minutes to help offset the jerky movements of badminton. Continuing this regimen five times a week for 10 years. Now he is 63 years old, and goes for swimming thrice a week, the other two working days reserved for gentle yoga.

When did his swimming journey start?

“I think I started at the age of 3 or 4,” says Dr Kumar, who hails from the coastal town of Valapad in the Thrissur district of Kerala. Facing the Arabian Sea, the town has a picturesque beach of waving coconut palms, soft sand and crashing turquoise waves – that was only a kilometer away from Dr Kumar’s family house. It formed the setting of his childhood. He recounts, “In our house we had a big family pond. We lived as a joint family – with five families all together. They all had children of the same age and all – and we would all play in the pond together, brothers and sisters. It was part of our fun.”

I believe it is the best exercise for all joints and muscles – the only exercise which has no weight impact. If I don’t swim, that day, my joint will ache. After play, the joint pain will vanish – it is a relaxing exercise.

- Dr Vazhoor Sreenivasan Ajai Kumar
Dr Vazhoor Sreenivasan Ajai Kumar, Medical Director and General Practitioner at Al Kamal Polyclinic Medical Polyclinics at Valapad beach, Thrissur
Dr Kumar with his extended family at Valapad beach, Thrissur. Image Credit: Supplied

“Especially during the holidays, we would play for one to two hours every day. Saturday and Sunday, and then summer and Onam (Kerala’s harvest festival). Maybe at the age of 10 to 12, I first started going to swim in the sea – 1 km away, and I would go once in a while.”

He recounts the natural, organic way he had begun his journey in the water, without professional training or competition but as an inevitable way of life for people of the water-bound town. This can be seen in the lagoon-interspersed cities of Kerala as well. “It’s a part of our life and upbringing. At my age, all guys from Valapad will be the same, the only challenge is maintaining and continuing it – I am 63 now,” he adds.

“Sometimes,” Dr Kumar laughs, “there was too much play happening in the pond. We would not stop it and it would go on indefinitely, then a father’s brother will come with a stick for a beating. That memory is still there.”

Fast-forward 60 years from his first foray into the blue and buoyant world, Dr Kumar still maintains the spark of connection – swimming in the Arabian Sea, except now on the other side of the water body, here in the UAE. He says, “With a medical college friend of mine in Abu Dhabi, we had a trip to Maya Island - we took a boat and went to the deep sea alone, after a long time. In the deep sea, there is no boundary, just like a pond, you can say it is a closed space – it is vast, and there will be natural waves. Because of saltwater, the density is also high – with a natural floating effect. It’s fun.”

As for his stroke now, he prefers butterfly and backstroke, although saying, “To be frank, I am not a professional swimmer.” He adds, “I believe it is the best exercise for all joints and muscles – the only exercise which has no weight impact. If I don’t swim, that day, my joint will ache. After play, the joint pain will vanish – it is a relaxing exercise.”

Dr Kumar also credits the sport for clearing his headspace for a fresh start to each day, adding that he does not have much other health problems currently. He says, “It is a refreshing start, there is no doubt. While swimming, we will not think anything. Our mind will be very calm and free.”

Super-sprinting through the blue

Of course, some have very different relationships with the water – forming firm foundations for their life and personality. At 12 years old, Eehita Chhabra - a 5th grade student at Delhi Private School, Sharjah - was seen as something of a swimming prodigy. She had just won her first individual championship trophy at the Indian CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) National Swimming Competition in 2009, competing with students from across the country, as well as Singapore and other Gulf countries in the same age category. This was an impressive feat that involved winning at least four gold medals in individual events (https://gulfnews.com/sport/sharjah-dps-students-create-waves-in-india-1.525099 ), and she was over the moon.

Chhabra recounts ,“My swimming regime has been more or less strict from the very beginning. As a child, I used to train once a day. By the time I turned 10, I had started training twice a day.”

My swimming regime has been more or less strict from the very beginning. As a child, I used to train once a day. By the time I turned 10, I had started training twice a day.

- Eehita Chhabra

She had begun her journey at 8 years of age, during the summer of 2005 – when her mum enrolled her in a swimming class so she would have something to do over the holidays. The coach spotted an unusual potential in her, urging her to take up competitive swimming. She says, “Those swimming lessons with floaties around my arms quickly turned into proper training sessions to improve my form, technique and agility.”

Training would go like this: A land warm-up of runs, callisthenics and stretches, then a swim warmup. The official workout of the day would then start, mixing up the different strokes – being issued instructions that might seem slightly obscure to outsiders. For example, “200 x10 free and back”, “50x20 pull and kick” would be swim-speak for 10 sets of 200m swims, alternating between freestyle and backstroke, and 20 sets of 50m freestyle drills using a pullbuoy and kickboard.

Sprints, or races followed, attuned to the competition schedules in the UAE and India. She says, “Over the years depending on the stage of competing cycle we were in; my workouts would change to cater to my physical needs. Closer to swim meets we did a lot of tapering sessions where you do all-out effort swims after having a lot of rest like at a swimming competition. This would also be my favourite training session.”

For Chhabra, swimming initially started as something she was good at. As she became a better swimmer, she recounts enjoying the sport even more. She says, “Participating in competitions, getting recognised for my talents and winning made my love for swimming grow even more.”

And, she was a sensation – going on to then win golds and silvers at every National competition since, having a record-breaking streak of winning three consecutive Individual championship trophies at National Swimming Competitions in 2011, 2012 and 2013, even in the notoriously competitive Under-19 category.

Eehita Chhabra at National Swimming Competition, India
Eehita Chhabra at National Swimming Competition, India Image Credit: Supplied

Her secret? Chhabra says, “One thing that helped me stay motivated towards my goal of becoming a better swimmer was competing with myself to improve my personal timing.”

The social aspect of it was her favourite part – with Nationals competitions entailing an atleast four-day trip to India with the swim team, decked out in the same team tracksuit and undergoing the storm of competition together. She says, “I enjoyed going to swimming meets and travelling with my teammates gave me the opportunity to spend more time with them.

“Another special moment for me was when my brother, intrigued by what I was doing in the pool, got into swimming as a small child.” He went on to become the first person from the school to win a national medal from the boys’ team.

Now, she is a student at the University of Waterloo in Canada. "Being in the pool is like my little escape from reality, it helps me forget the outside world for a while. Over the years swimming has become an activity that helps me de-stress and be at peace. During university, I took a break from swimming competitively in order to focus on my academics. However, that has not stopped me from swimming recreationally. I still go for swims in my local YMCA whenever possible. Apart from the health benefits, it helps lift my mood and refreshes my mind."

Weightless workout

Swimming in pool
Swimming is a weightless, cardiovascular workout that can be done by people of all ages. Image Credit: Unsplash/Talahria Jensen

There is something soothing about the silken feel of water against your skin as you glide, buoyed by the liquid blue. Over time, flailing choppy strokes, become smooth, seamless until your movements merge with the water. Gulf News speaks to Mark Randall, Aquatics coach at Fitrepublik in Dubai-sports city, for more - what makes swimming special?

Randall says, “Just the fact that it’s a full body workout, where you’re using probably 90 per cent of your muscles in your body, and there’s no impact on the body as well – it’s a great, total body workout to build your resistance and fitness-wise. It’s just a great form of exercise that you can keep doing until you’re very old one day.

“It’s obviously good as cardiovascular exercise, and it can also help recovery from weight training or other forms of high-impact exercise too. It improves your posture and is definitely something that can be incorporated into your everyday training routine - just as an add-on. It doesn't have to be a big part but can definitely add some benefits.”

Just the fact that it’s a full body workout, where you’re using probably 90% of your muscles in your body, and there’s no impact on the body as well – it’s a great, total body workout to build your resistance and fitness-wise. It’s just a great form of exercise that you can keep doing until you’re very old one day.

- Mark Randall, Aquatics Coach, Fitrepublik

Randall himself began swimming seriously at the age of 11, going on to win his first National Open title – in South Africa at 16 years old. He was awarded a scholarship to swim and study in the US, and in 2005 – aged 19 - he became a two-time US Open champion. He also swam in two Commonwealth games and two World Swimming Championships, representing South Africa. As a coach at Fitrepublik here in the UAE for the past 4 years, he has been witness to his students overcoming their fear of water, becoming fitter and healthier.

He recounts: “People who have come to me, who want to know how to swim – once they get into the water and start to understand how their body reacts in the water. In overcoming that fear, I think that’s very rewarding.

“People feel that way after they swim - just refreshed, not only because they’ve been in the water but because mentally, they’ve had the opportunity to be focused on something else. Perhaps push themselves mentally or physically, in a way that they wouldn’t normally.”

Swimming in the UAE
With its history in the ocean and pearl diving, water sports are fundamental in UAE’s culture. Now, competitions run for all age groups, predominantly for those under 18 across different educational curricula. Randall says, “The competitions will start now in October and run all the way through till the end of June every year – that’s kind of how the swimming season runs.”

A number of international swimmers also live and train here in UAE, sometimes representing other countries. Randall gives an example of a swimmer from Argentina, 19-year old Joaquin Pinero Gonzales, who competed at the Junior World Championships and the Youth Olympics. He says, “He's actually just now going over to the US to swim and study at the University of Florida.”

He adds, “There’s also quite active open water swimming community – there’s usually one or two races now in November and another one in March each year as well. Of course, triathlon is quite a popular sport here in the UAE as well, with swimming, running and biking.”

If you are unfamiliar with swimming and interested in learning it, you can sign up for classes at the variety of training centres available in the UAE, whether for adults or children. If you already know the fundamentals of the sport and are instead looking to integrate a casual swimming routine into your life, Randall recommends going for a swim twice a week.

He says, “Building it to three times would be ideal, but that obviously depends on whether you’re doing any other activities or other kinds of training. Twice a week for 30 to 60 minutes would be enough.”

Randall’s top tips:

Swimming at the beach ocean
Image Credit: Pexels/Jennifer Polanco

1. If you’re starting, set yourself a time goal for the time that you would like to spend in the pool, whether it’s just 10 or 15 minutes.

2. Keep track of how many laps you are doing within that amount of time.

3. Swim for the same amount of time (next time), but try to increase the number of laps and the distance that you swam.

4. Randall says, “You kind of keep track of your fitness – if you’re swimming a little bit further in the same amount of time, then you know your fitness is improving.”

5. He adds, “Once you get comfortable in the water, you can start doing interval training in the pool, start adding some variety - sprints, kicking and pulling. You can also incorporate all the strokes into your training, just so you know, stress the body in a different way. Make sure that you’re working all the muscles in the body."

You can head to your community pool beginning with twice a week – and find a routine that soothes your soul. A fun bonus if you go at the crack of dawn is taking a breather mid-swim and looking at the sunrise spread light across the sky. The best bit? It’s a life-saving sport, after all.