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Forgotten Hero swimmer Mihir Sen, only man to swim oceans of 5 continents in a year

9 December, 2019 20:19:58
Forgotten Hero swimmer Mihir Sen, only man to swim oceans of 5 continents in a year

October 31, 1966, the world awaited with bated breath and looked in awe and admiration as a non-American youth attempted to swim and cross the entire length of the Panama Canal. The artificial 82 km waterway connects the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean. People wondered if the man would be able to complete the mission, although he had been at it for two consecutive days. It was an extremely tough challenge that tested human endurance and mental strength. As the clocked ticked, enthusiasm turned to anxiety. The only question that loomed… ‘Will he give up?’ But he was Mihir Sen, a man made of sterner stuff. He emerged a winner after conquering the Panama Canal. It took him 34 hours and 15 minutes to swim across the entire length of the Panama Canal. 

Sen was one of India’s greatest long-distance swimmers and the first Asian to swim the English Channel. He was the only man in the world to swim across oceans of five continents in one year. This remarkable feat had earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sen was born on November 16, 1930, in a small village in Purulia district. In 1938, when he was eight years old, his family moved to Cuttack, Odisha, to seek better educational opportunities for him. His father, Dr Ramesh Sen was a doctor. Since his childhood, Sen had dreamed of completing his studies abroad and his dream came true with the help of then chief minister of Odisha, Biju Patnaik, who financed his ticket to England after he obtained his law degree from Utkal University.

Once in England, Sen enrolled at the prestigious Lincoln’s Inn to study law. His life changed when one day, he came across a newspaper report on the achievements of Florence Chadwick, an American, and the first woman to swim across the English Channel in 1950. Inspired by her feat, he was determined to do the same and show the world that Indians were capable of such remarkable achievements as well. 

Once Sen resolved to become the first Asian to swim across the English Channel, he began intense training. Barely knowing how to paddle, he enrolled at the YMCA, where he practiced for hours till he transformed into one of the finest freestyle swimmers with incredible endurance.

The English Channel divides the island of Great Britain from northern France and often looks deceptively simple to the untrained eye, but it requires immense training and stamina to swim in it. Beneath the calm appearance, the Channel is prone to frequent changes in both water and weather currents. Moreover, the Atlantic Ocean is also home to poisonous jellyfish. 

In 1955, Sen made his first attempt to cross the Channel, but failed due to bad weather. Three years later, on 27 September 1958, he crossed the 32-km stretch within a time of 14 hours and 45 minutes and earned the distinction of being the first Asian to achieve the feat. In 1959, he was honoured with the Padmashree title by the Government of India for his incredible feat.

But this was just the beginning of a long and eventful life of adventure for Sen.  In 1966, Sen achieved the impossible — he swam the oceans of five continents. He crossed the Palk Strait in 25 hours and 36 minutes, the Straits of Gibraltar in 8 hours and 1 minute, the Dardenelles in 13 hours and 55 minutes, The Bosphorous in 4 hours, and the entire length of the Panama Canal in 34 hours and 15 minutes. In 1967, he was given the Padmabhushan Award. 

Sen was a man of integrity and locked horns with the Left Front government in West Bengal. He opposed the then chief minister and had to pay a terrible cost for doing so. He was forced to shut down his silk export business. A series of legal cases were slapped against him, his residence was raided several times, his assets were seized and bank accounts were frozen. Eventually, he went bankrupt. The establishment crushed him into poverty. Amidst all this trouble, he also suffered a stroke, which he survived, but later on he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

He breathed his last in 1997 at the age of 67, a broken and lonely man.

However, Sen’s enduring legacy remains. He inspired the youth and showed the world that no matter the obstacles, Indians could dare to dream and achieve great things.

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