Arati Saha was a pioneering swimmer who made history and made history from learning to swim on the Indian riverside to competing in the Olympics at the age of 11.
On September 24th, her life and achievements will be honored with a Google Doodle on her 80th birthday.
She was born in Calcutta, British India – now Kolkata, India – in 1940.
When she was four years old she had learned to swim on the banks of the Hooghly River, and Sachin Nag, one of India’s top competitive swimmers, discovered her skills in the water.
Within a year she had won her first swimming gold medal and between 1945 and 1951 she won 22 state-level competitions in West Bengal specializing in 100 m freestyle, 100 m chest and 200 m chest.
In 1948 she won silver in the 100 m freestyle and 200 m breaststroke at the national championship in Mumbai, as well as bronze in the 200 m freestyle.
The following year she set an All India record and in 1951 she set a new national record in the 100m breaststroke with a time of 1 minute 37.6 seconds.
At the same time, she set new records at the state level in the 100 m freestyle, 200 m freestyle and 100 m back.
These results were enough to join the Indian Olympic team for the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland.
At 11, she was the youngest member of the Indian team and one of only four women.
In the 200 m breaststroke, a time of 3 minutes and 40.8 seconds was achieved in the heats, which unfortunately was not fast enough to qualify for the final.
During her teenage years, Saha turned to long-distance swimming.
She made her first attempt to cross the English Channel in August 1959, a month before her 19th birthday.
Her name was recommended for the route by Brojen Das, the first person from the Indian subcontinent to swim the English Channel.
On August 27th she started from Cape Gris Nez, France, for the Butlin International Cross Channel Swimming Race to Sandgate in England.
The race with 58 participants – five of them women – from 23 countries started at 1am, but Saha’s pilot boat was running late, which meant she had to start 40 minutes after everyone else.
The lost time was crucial as it missed the favorable conditions.
By eleven o’clock she had swum more than forty miles and was within five miles of the English coast when strong currents from the opposite direction hampered her progress.
In the next five hours she had only traveled two miles and under the pressure of her pilot had to break off despite her determination to reach the destination.
A month later, on September 29th, she made her second attempt on the same route.
This time she made it and arrived in England in 16 hours and 20 minutes to become the first Asian woman to swim the English Channel.
Saha proudly raised the Indian flag after completing her trip.
Later that year she married her longtime manager Dr. Arun Gupta and in 1960 received one of the highest civil awards in India, the Padma Shri.
In 1999 she had the postal department issue a stamp in her honor.
After swimming, Saha worked for the rest of her adult life on the Indian railways and had a daughter, Archana.
She died on August 4, 1994 at the age of 53.