While growing up in a family of fishermen, the sea translated to a playground for Prabhat Koli. After crossing the English Channel, he heard of the Oceans Seven challenge. Ever since, there’s been no looking back for this teen.
Mumbai boy on his way to complete most dangerous swimming challenges
Mumbai boy Prabhat Koli is on a mission to ace the Oceans Seven, among the world’s most dangerous swimming challenges, and has broken several records along the way
When Prabhat Koli celebrated his 19th birthday on July 27, the cake was a spirited reminder of things to come. It showed a boy swimming in a blue sea of icing, with a little jellyfish curiously staring at him. Koli who, in 2015, embarked on the Oceans Seven challenge, completed the fifth leg of this swimming marathon earlier this month, when he conquered the icy waters of the North Channel, a 35-km stretch between Northern Ireland and Scotland. And yes, besides navigating the freezing water, he had to dodge many jellyfish too.
“A Hungarian swimmer had to be pulled out and taken to the hospital [after being stung]. The poison is lethal if you don’t get it out of your system in time. One came really close to kissing me once,” says Koli, laughing.
By the time Koli stepped out of the water after 10 hours and 41 minutes, he had endured multiple stings and a bout of hypothermia, which threatened to bring his swim to an untimely end, just miles from the finish. But he had also become the youngest to get across the stretch in the third-fastest time recorded.
The Oceans Seven is often described as a “marathon swimming challenge” and “the swimming equivalent of the Seven Summits mountaineering challenge”. It includes a swim across some of the roughest crossings, like the North Channel, the Cook Strait, the Molokai Channel, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. Prabhat has finished five, and has two more to go.
Growing up in the fishing community of Trombay Koliwada, Koli routinely saw his father, Raju, venture out into the open sea. “There was no concept of professional swimming, let alone a coach to train us. Whenever I read about someone swimming the popular route between Dharamtar and the Gateway of India, I always wondered why it wasn’t a koli,” says Raju, who started out as a helper on a fishing boat, and later found a job as an apprentice technician at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). When Prabhat was born, the sea called out to Raju once again. “Prabhat showed an interest in swimming at a summer camp, and I wished that someday he would pull off the feat I had read about all my life,” Raju says.
After swimming the Hooghly and the Bhagirathi in West Bengal, Prabhat lived out his father’s dream in 2012 by swimming the stretch between Dharamtar and Gateway in 7.35 hours. “It was the most satisfying moment of my life. After that swim, his coach Kishor Patil, told me that he was ready to take on the English Channel,” Raju recalls. In the next few months, Prabhat also mastered four new routes in the Arabian Sea. The stage was now set for an endurance test in international waters.
To gear up for the English Channel, Prabhat first circumnavigated Jersey Island in the UK, a 66-km route. During this time, he had a chance meeting with Sally Minty-Gravett, a legend in openwater swimming with many firsts to her name, including as the oldest person to finish a two-way swim across the English Channel at the age of 59.
“One of the first tips I picked up from her was how to acclimatise to the cold water, which I had never experienced in India. Ever since, she’s been an integral part of all that I’ve achieved,” says Prabhat.
It was in 2015 that the family first heard about the Oceans Seven, and Prabhat decided to go for it. While he roughed it out in the water, his family faced a different kind of challenge.
“Each trip costs around Rs 10-12 lakh. In India, everyone only knows Virat Kohli but not Prabhat Koli,” says his mother Shilpa.
The family sold off their rowhouse in Nerul and moved to the BARC campus. Besides investing all his savings, Raju took loans and accepted donations from anyone who believed in his son. Every day at 4 am, Raju would drive his son to his training session in Dadar under Percy Hakim and Joshua Joseph. After dropping him to school, Raju would go to work, and later drive Prabhat to Ulwe for his evening training.
“It was difficult to find a facility to train for so many hours. At times, we took special permission to use the BARC pool and started training at 2.30 am,” Raju says.
The hard work certainly paid off. Prabhat has already bested the Catalina, Molokai and Tsugaru Channels, besides six swims in South Africa. He has crossed Lake Constance to go from Germany to Switzerland, and swum around Manhattan Island in the US — the last of which made him the youngest to achieve what is known as the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming (English Channel, Catalina Channel and around Manhattan).
“The 42-km swim across Molokai was the toughest. I started at 6 pm in choppy waters and suddenly found myself in a thunderstorm,” says Koli. “Even my father, who is a fisherman, got sick on the boat. Twice, the accompanying kayak flipped over me. That night, I could still hear the whale cries echoing in the water.” Still, Koli covered a distance of 42 km in 17.22 hours —and became the youngest and fastest Asian to do this.
Preparing for the North Channel swim was a different ball game. The most crucial part of this was swimming in icy waters — with a temperature of about 12 degrees Celsius, amid bone-chilling winds — and still stave off hypothermia. To withstand the cold, fitness coach Deepak Tawade advised a high-fat diet for Prabhat to bulk up his body. As part of his training, Koli and his mother travelled to Nainital in May, to train in the cold waters of the Naini lake. “He had to be prepared to be in the water for at least 12 hours. If it had lasted longer, he would not have been able to deal with the cold,” says Shilpa.
With just two more swims left to complete the Oceans Seven, Prabhat will soon get back to the grind of swimming at odd (and long) hours. Even though he has still not received the kind of recognition his family hoped for, Prabhat is single-minded in his determination to finish the endurance test. And the cake will taste that much sweeter if he can pull off the last two swims in time for his 21st birthday.