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She kept three generations from going under

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A swimming coach for 51 years, she trained national champions; was Olympian Michael Klim’s first coach

I’m just glad I still do what I love most, teach swimming. When you love what you do, I don’t think there is any other way,” SoBo’s legendary swimming coach Khorshed Bhathena used to say until she passed away yesterday. She was 84.

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Khorshed Bhathena (1935-2019)

From the Tatas, Birlas, Godrejs and the Ruias, to children and senior citizens of South Mumbai, Bhathena coached three generations in the basic skill that she said was an experience that people never forget and love to share with their families. A coach for over five decades, Bhathena was remembered by each and every one of her students; one of them being Olympian Michael Klim. She was Klim’s coach in Malabar Hill when he was three years old. Klim’s father was a Polish diplomat posted in Bombay from 1978-82. In every interview Bhathena gave over the years, she remembered Klim as her best student, whose talent she saw even when he was a toddler.

A few years ago, Klim and his elder sister Anna Eagle had come to Mumbai to especially meet their favourite teacher. Bhathena was really touched when Klim gave her an autographed photo holding up all his Olympic medals with the message: “What I am today is because of you”. That stayed her most prized possession. Klim is also known to have flown her to Australia for a felicitation ceremony.

Bhathena herself was a professional swimmer until she had to give it up due to an injury. As a child of about six years, she was brought up by her grand-parents in Kolkata on a beautiful farm, where her favourite pastime was watching ducklings swim in a pond. She spent hours picking them up and putting them in the pond, just so she could enjoy watching the little yellow birds swim. She used to say that ignited her passion for swimming.

In the 1950s, when she could not get membership to any city swimming pool, she literally threw herself into the big blue sea and taught herself how to swim. Later, she became part of the St Xavier’s College swimming team and went on to win many accolades for open sea swimming.

In time, she met her own life buoy, her husband, whose name was incidentally Naval and was an expert diving coach in many clubs. After accompanying him for years, Bhathena took on coaching and the couple was seen together on most days merrily riding into the Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust on their scooter and sidecar, ready to begin their training schedule. Bhathena and her husband trained many members of the trust, who later became state and national champions, clocking record timings. Some even went on to win the Asian Games.

During her 47 years dedicated service at the Trust, Bhathena earned immense love and respect from members and staff alike. Her unique style of teaching swimming strokes from the bench, hardly ever getting into the water, evoked curiosity among onlookers. Yet no one doubted her talent in bringing out the best in every swimmer she trained. Until the last few weeks, she coached at the trust and privately at many plush South Mumbai housing societies (Grand Paradi, Darshan Apartments, the Imperial and Planet Godrej, to name a few) from 6:30 am to 8 pm, working even on Sundays.

In all this adulation, her students forget that Bhathena in 1964 swam almost 50 miles for 24 hours non-stop in the Bombay Harbour, starting off in Alibaug at 3.30 pm and reaching the Gateway of India same time next day. She also participated and won the Sunk Rock to Gateway race held by the state government. She was always more interested in long distances than sprints.

Life was not always smooth sailing for Bhathena. The veteran coach had to face a lot of opposition and serious injuries in her career. At one point, she stopped competing for almost five years and later a serious head injury kept her away from the pool for six months. At the end, it was just her tenacity, persistence and self-determination that was her motivation.