This is our Institute pool, and various events are held there throughout the year, besides daily batches. The Swimmathon, which I had come for, was a 12 hour, non-stop swimming event, that would begin at 5 pm and go on till Sunday dawn, at 5 am. You went back and forth continuously and stopped for predefined hydration breaks and so on. Lest anyone get the idea that our pool is a kind of a Slow Senior Swimming Heaven, let me hasten to add, that I wasn't participating, but my daughter was.
I duly landed up suitably armed with bags full of liquid hydrating nutrition, of various varieties. Along with some chocolates. And settled in for an exciting night amidst chlorine smells and occasional unintentional sprays of water....
A long stint of staying for 30 years in one area, and a daughter who has been training at the pool since a child, in single digit years, means that I end up knowing lots of folks there. I don't accompany my daughter to the pool now like I did when she was younger. I think she's grown up, she thinks that I cramp her style.
And so I put down all my stuff near the high diving area, and went around to say hi to folks.
I saw a colleague from the old days at the end of another lane, and turned out that her son was participating. A searching glance in that lane and I saw a young fellow in a multicolor speedo cap and goggles, pacing slowly trough the lane , freestyling with great effort . Full of concentration, he kept at it, oblivious to all kinds of folks speeding beside him.
R, the son, is a special child. He has Down's syndrome. I would see him as a youngster, riding pillion on his mother's two wheeler, as he attended various types of vocational schools. In 2005, he joined a beginners swimming camp on campus, during summer. In early 2006, he simply participated in the first Swimmathon of his life. And has never looked back. Every year , he participates , and completes the twelve hour swimming. Like all children , he needs a bit of cajoling when he has his off moments in the pool, or he gets tired, and the fact that his parents attend these meets with great enthusiasm, always helps.
Down's syndrome is all about slowing of development of various kinds. Normal people , go through a storm of defiant emotions, when they see themselves being overtaken by more powerful swimmers, and someone urging them to continue in the race. And here was this chap, going at his own speed, one arm over , then the other, feet kicking, making a slow determined progress , lap by lap. Occasionally he would reach the edge, look up at his folks, and someone would pass him a sipper bottle. Energized, remotivated, with encouragement from so many around, he would push against the wall, and take off again, on a slow crawl to the other side.
Several participants left before the 12 hours got over. Some left within 8 hours, out of boredom. Some left as there wasn't anyone standing around applauding them and encouraging them; some took advantage of the coach going in for a short meeting , to escape from the pool. Every now and then some of the kids would hang on to the ladders, and sip their stuff, demanding something new each time, and we would see a bunch of parents coming and going at short intervals. Someone would a blow a warning whistle and the swimming would continue once again.
But R, is almost like a Swimmathon veteran. He doesn't go all out physically from the word "go" . He thinks and he conserves energy. Looks like he is in a steady state level, as lap after lap, with great effort, he maintains an unchanged, as they say in cricket, line and length. Kind of swimming in the zone , as it were.
21st of March. The Swimmathon draws to a close in the early change of lights in the sky, mobilizing for another hot sweltering day in Mumbai. The closing whistle blows , and the desperate last minute sprint to reach the deep end happens. The background music playing popular hits comes to a stop, and the coach asks everyone to relax in the water. And then gather on the pool deck.
R is amongst the student swimmers, gathered at the shallow end. The coach announces that in the history of our Swimmathon, this time we have had the maximum amount of folks sticking on, swimming away, till the last 12 hr completion whistle blew. Applause. Then he asks the swimmers to come out. R is given the honor of leading the guys. The participants in the pool, the parents cheering everyone the whole night, the pool staff, the student organizers , even the public-address-system personnel shake his hands . The coach pats his back. And he returns to the folds of a family who hand him a towel, rub him vigorously to warm him, and he goes off to change with all the other guys.
A slow, steady, extremely dedicated 9.6 kilometres in 12 hours.
Opinions vary about educating those with Down's Syndrome. There are special schools. There are special vocational skills taught. There are wonderful schools in Mumbai, that train these children in crafts and some industries that have a sense of pride in placing orders for things with these schools, as well as absorbing these children as some part of their work force. And there is a school of thought that says integrate these children into normal schools. Whenever and however possible.
Sometimes it's not just about lessons. He is a great learner. He is wonderfully trained in not just swimming, but also in the art of certain handicrafts. A family friend is now giving him daily lessons to teach him English.
I don't think anyone in our pool has been reading up on all these theories. They just think that's the way it has to be. R has always been a great part of our Swimmathons ever since he learnt swimming along with the other campus children , as a beginner. There is always a bunch of students who turn up to cheer participants at the unearthly hours like 3 am. And one is never ever surprised to know that he is greatly cheered and encouraged, even by the event commentator who treats him on par with the others, announcing things dramatically, publicising his tremendous effort, and that of others who are racing to the finish.
Like my daughter, who won overall with a distance of 32 kilometres in 12 hours. But she looks up in awe at R's performance and achievement. And the great family and coaching effort that has brought him to this level.
I just found out that March 21st is celebrated as World Down Syndrome Day, and the particular date has something to do with something called the "triplication of the 21st chromosome" in a human cell that gives rise to this physiological condition.
It is absolutely in the fitness of things that the dawn of today, 21st March teaches us something new about folks like R, and how folks like him tackle life.
Down's syndrome was named after John Langdon Down, the British physician who described the syndrome in 1866. The disorder was identified as a chromosome 21 thing by Jérôme Lejeune in 1959.
I just think the Syndrome is unfortunately named.
There is nothing Down about it.
One simply looks UP at R in awe....
Click below to watch. R swimming in the lane with the lady in a green saree noting the laps at the deep end....