Arati Saha, a female Indian swimmer, completed a Successful solo swim on 29 September 1959
Arati Gupta (née Saha; 24 September 1940 – 23 August 1994) was an Indian long distance swimmer. Born in Calcutta, West Bengal, British India, Arati was initiated in swimming at the early age of four, and her talent was spotted by Sachin Nag. She was inspired by Indian swimmer Mihir Sen to try to cross the English Channel. In 1959 she became the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel. In 1960, she became the first Indian sportswoman to be awarded Padma Shri.
Between 1946 and 1956, Arati participated in several swimming competitions. Between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal. Her main events were 100 metres freestyle, 100 metres breast stroke and 200 metres breast stroke.
In 1948, she participated in the national championship held at Mumbai. She won silver in 100 metres freestyle and 200 metres breast stroke and won bronze in 200 metres freestyle. She made an all-India record in 1949. At the 1951 West Bengal state meet, she clocked 1 minute 37.6 seconds in 100 metres breast stroke and broke Dolly Nazir’s all-India record. At the same meet, she set new state-level record in 100 metres freestyle, 200 metres freestyle and 100 metres back stroke.
She represented India at the 1952 Summer Olympics along with compatriot Dolly Nazir. She was one of the four women participants and the youngest member of the Indian contingent. At the Olympics, she took part in 200 metres breast stroke event. At the heats she clocked 3 minutes 40.8 seconds. After returning from the Olympics, she lost in 100 metres freestyle to her sister Bharati Saha.
Arati got the first inspiration to cross the English Channel from Brojen Das. At the 1958 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race, Brojen Das became the first among the men and earned the distinction of being the first person from the Indian subcontinent to cross the English Channel. Greta Andersen, a Danish-born female swimmer from United States clocked 11 hours and 1 minute and stood first among both men and women. This inspired the female swimmers all over the world. Arati sent a congratulatory message to Brojen Das on his victory. He replied back stating that she too shall be able to achieve it. He proposed the name of Arati to the organizers of the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race for the next year’s event.
On 24 July 1959, she left for England along with her manager Dr. Arun Gupta. After basic practice, she started her final practice at the English Channel from 13 August. During this time, she was mentored by Dr. Bimal Chandra, who was also participating at the 1959 Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race. He had arrived in England from another swimming competition in Naples in Italy.
A total of 58 participants including 5 women from 23 countries took part in the competition. The race was scheduled on 27 August 1959 at 1 am local time from Cape Gris Nez, France to Sandgate, England. However, the pilot boat of Arati Saha did not arrive in time. She had to start late by 40 minutes and lost the favourable condition. By 11 am, she had swum more than 40 miles and came within 5 miles of the England coast. At that point she faced a strong current from the opposite direction. As a result, by 4 pm, she could only swim about two more miles. While she was still determined to carry on, she had to quit under pressure from her pilot.
On 29 September 1959, she made her second attempt. Starting from Cape Gris Nez, France, she swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes, batting tough waves and covered 42 miles to reach Sandgate, England. On reaching the coast of England, she hoisted the Indian flag. Vijaylakshmi Pandit was the first to congratulate her. Jawahar Lal Nehru and many eminent people personally congratulated her. On 30 September, the All India Radio announced the achievement of Arati Saha.