South Asia’s Own King of the Channel

My article published in the May 2009 issue of the Swimming Times (the official journal of the Amateur Swimming Association and the Institute of Swimming, Great Britain)

Fifty-one years after his first channel swim, Brojen Das remains South Asia’s greatest-ever swimmer and Bangladesh’s greatest sporting hero. Ijaz Chaudhry reports

South Asia’s Own King of the Channel

As we move towards the Great Channel Swim in August, it is appropriate to look back at one of the kings of the Channel. Brojen Das is South Asia’s greatest-ever swimmer and last year was the golden jubilee of the Bangladeshi’s first channel crossing. He remains his country’s greatest sporting hero and its only sportsperson of international recognition ­­­­­­; a small man (he was only 5ft 5in tall) from a country which has never come close to winning a swimming medal at even Asian level.

Brojen Das who died in 1998, was the first Asian to swim the Channel and the first person to cross it four times. In 1961, he also set a record for the fastest swim from France to England. He was easily the finest swimmer to come out of South Asia, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal ­­­­, a region home to more than a fifth of the world’s population.

Born on December 9, 1927, in the Kuchiamora village of Bikrampur, Munshiganj, in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Brojen was an adept swimmer from his boyhood. The turbulent waters of the River Ganga (Buriganga) were his first training ground. He first distinguished himself as a short-course swimmer. In the East Pakistan competition in 1953, he made a clean sweep of the freestyle events, winning the 100m, 200m, 400m and 1500m. In 1955, Brojen became Pakistan’s national champion in the 100 and 200m freestyle. He even made Pakistan’s swimming squad for the 1956 Olympics before an arm injury suffered in an accident ruled him out.

Brojen’s transition to long-distance sea-swimming earned him immortality in the annals of the sport. He trained in the most turbulent part of the lower Megna river and his career took an upward turn when he got the opportunity to take part in the English Channel Competition in 1958. Seeing it as the chance of a lifetime, Brojen intensified his training. His confidence soared after he swam the 46 miles from Narayanganj to Chandpur. He also completed a 48-hour non-stop swim, covering about 60 miles in the Dhaka pool, and the Capri to Naples swim in the Mediterranean.

Brojen arrived in England in June 1958 for the Billy Butlin Channel event as the only contestant from South Asia. The swim began at midnight of August 18 and ended the following afternoon. Twenty-one of the 30 swimmers dropped out, mostly due to exhaustion, but Brojen continued undaunted to not only to secure the first position in the race but also became the first Asian ever to cross the channel.

He swam again the following year, bettering his time, and then crossed in the opposite direction. In 1960, he conquered the Channel for the third year running, though certain detractors, especially the press of his own country, termed it a ‘failure’ due to the slower timing of 14 hours 44 minutes compared with his best times of 13:26 (England to France) and 13:53 (France to England).

‘So I was under great pressure,’ said ‘Brojenda’, as he was popularly known. ‘The press in Pakistan had even started predicting that the Brojen era was about to end.’

The criticism served only to strengthen his resolve. He pledged that in 1961 he would not only better his own time but break the Channel record.

‘All these thoughts were with me when I jumped into the Channel on September 8 for the fifth time to try for a world record, ‘he recalled. ‘I had a good sea to begin with but encountered very rough sea towards the end, which robbed me of any chance of the record. I was very tired after swimming for 11 hours 48 minutes. It was my best-ever time yet I regarded it as a failure since my goal was the record. I decided to try again at the next neap tide. On September 21, within 12 days of my fifth swim, a record in itself, I plunged again. Nearly whole of Cap Griz Nez village turned out to wish me luck and see me enter the water for the sixth time.’

Before his first crossing in 1958, Brojen had told the Pakistan High Commissioner in London that if he was not successful, he would have to ‘drag a dead Brojen Das from the ‘Channel’. This same determination and single-mindedness was again evident in 1961 as Brojen completed his swim in 10 hours 35 minutes, breaking the 11-year-old record by 15 minutes. In fact, the swim produced two entries in the Guinness Book of Records, as a sixth swim was a record in itself.

Having achieved every possible distinction, Brojen Das bid the competitive arena adieu in 1961. Thereafter he coached and trained swimmers at home and abroad, including aspiring Channel swimmers. He also served as general secretary of the Bangladesh Swimming Federation and in 1976 received the national award from his government for his valuable contribution to sport. Other accolades included life membership of the Channel Swimming Association (1958) and King of the Channel title (1986); induction into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame (1965); and vice-president of the World Long Distance Swimming Association (1964). Perhaps the greatest compliment came from Mohammad Ali. They met at the South Asian Games in 1985 and the boxing legend said: ‘You are the King of Channel and I am the King of Ring. But I think your achievement is even greater than mine.’

His death from cancer aged 71 sent shock waves through his country with president and prime minister sending condolences. His story is still taught in Bangladeshi schools.

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