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Jiya Rai takes her own route to the finish line

Behind the success of the 13-year-old autistic swimmer who recently broke the Palk Strait record, is the resolute determination of her parents

Jiya Rai with her parents Rachana and Madan  (Courtesy the Rai family)

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It’s a balmy Friday morning at the Marine Drive Promenade in Mumbai when I meet Rachana and Madan Rai and their daughter, Jiya. She spots the sea and rushes to it, before settling down between her parents.

On March 20, Jiya swam the 29km Palk Strait between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu in 13 hours 10 minutes, breaking a record set in 2004. At 13 years 10 months, Jiya is the youngest and fastest female swimmer in the world to swim the Strait. And for the first time, this para-athlete smashed a record set by her able-bodied counterparts.

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Until the age of two, Jiya showed no signs of autism, say Rachana and Madan, college sweethearts who met at Shibli National College in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh and married in 2003. After Madan joined the Indian Navy, Rachana followed him across the country, while pursuing her career as a science teacher.

When Jiya still hadn’t started talking at age two, and kept to herself when other kids were around, they met a doctor who diagnosed autism. “I had never heard the term, let alone know what it meant,” Madan says.

Long distance swimming and Jiya are inseparable today. Like most other children, she started swimming shorter distances at local meets, before she was spotted by Mumbai-based coach, Vidyadhar Gharat. What stood out for him was her reserves of energy. After each race, she would step out fresh, in command of herself, while the other kids huffed and puffed. The only thing missing was the lack of discipline to follow simple instructions like lining up at the start and setting off once the whistle was blown. From his experience, Gharat knew she was the right fit for long distance swimming. “In the open waters, starting a minute or two later wouldn’t matter for a strong swimmer. We decided to get her to swim longer distances,” Madan says.

After the swim
After the swim (Courtesy the Rai family)

Since Jiya is nonverbal, the Rais have a system to get her to understand everything from distances to time. She now understands “Wait” and “Your Turn” for pool events. “Sea” and “Big” indicate she’ll be doing long distances. They usually get to the course a few days ahead of her swim and take a boat ride, as Jiya quietly observes the water. They take photos of the start and the finish point, to help her understand the course.

“We design posters with the start and finish point for her swims, be it a lighthouse or a bridge. We put it up on the boats that follow her, so it’s always in her head. Once she spots it in the distance while swimming, she will turn to us and smile. And then nothing will stop her,” Madan says. They’ve done this for each of her swims, whether it was the 22km stretch between Arnala Fort and Vasai Fort in January 2021 or the 36km between Bandra Worli Sea Link and the Gateway of India.

It all sounds relatively simple today after all that she’s achieved. But behind Jiya’s success is the resolute determination of parents who didn’t give up on her.

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A few weeks after her diagnosis, Madan was transferred to Goa. “The (way people talked) used to worry us a lot. We had two options: Hide our child at home or have her step outside,” says Madan. They decided to do the latter. They would take her to a small park with relatively fewer visitors who would try talking to her. Next to it was a swimming pool. Jiya’s first dip started a whole new journey for them. They realised she was a water baby, a natural swimmer.

Madan started working double shifts—fulfilling his duties in the Navy and then donning the role of her first coach. Rachana set aside her postgraduate degree in science, as well as her teaching ambitions, to spend more time with Jiya. In 2013, when Jiya was five years old, Madan was transferred to Mumbai. One school admitted her only on the condition was Rachana would sit outside the class as a shadow teacher. Other children would ask why she wouldn’t talk, teachers complained about her lack of attention. But it changed after a swimming competition at school, where Jiya picked up two golds in the 50-metre freestyle and breaststroke events.

“The same kids who were troubling her were now clapping for her. For us it was simple—to continue school, we had to ensure that she kept swimming. We had no intention of making her a professional swimmer,” Madan recalls.

The first inter-school meet in December 2014 at the Andheri Sports Complex was a nightmare for the parents. Jiya was restless and couldn’t understand why she had to wait to swim when the pool was right in front of her. When she created a little commotion, Madan decided to take her to another pool next to the main one. “I asked her to do multiple laps of the butterfly stroke to tire her out. I thought, ‘to hell with the medals!” Madan says, laughing. That’s when Gharat, watching from the stands, recognised her talent and offered to train her.

A younger Jiya
A younger Jiya (Courtesy the Rai family)

Rachana started taking Jiya to Andheri for training. “She would listen to me but coach ki baat na sun na, na samajh na (She wouldn’t listen to him or understand him),” Rachana says. By this time, the Rais were aware of Jiya’s keen sense of observation. She had started the breaststroke after watching Navy cadets practice it. Rachana asked Gharat to teach her the techniques he wanted to convey to Jiya. “The coach liked my commitment, so agreed. I would guide Jiya by touch and she grasped things quickly,” Rachana says. Soon, mornings started with videos of Michael Phelps at home. Jiya would sit in rapt attention and take her observations to the pool.

Seven months later, at her first open water swimming meet in Malvan in Maharashtra, Jiya dove in last, full seconds after the whistle was blown. Still, she finished sixth among 200 kids. “Gharat sir said, ‘did you see how fresh she was after the swim? Ek din yeh bachcha samundar main aag laga dega, this kid will set the sea on fire one day,” recalls Madan.

The training hours got longer, alongside physical workouts. The therapy sessions became less frequent until one day, it wasn’t needed any longer; swimming was working like a charm on Jiya. “Swimming was a place where the kid was happy and so were we,” Madan says.

In 2019, they travelled to the National Open Water Sea Swimming Championship in Porbandar. On arrival, they realised that the minimum age was 14 for the 5km event; Jiya was only 10. Her entry had been rejected, but since they were there, Madan would take her to train each day. “One day, the club president, Harshit Rughani, spotted her during training and was impressed. By evening, she was cleared to swim the event,” Madan says.

On January 5, 2020, Jiya took gold in Porbandar, setting a new course record. When she stepped up on the stage, the Rais observed how her body language had changed. “After Porbandar, she realised what it meant to win a medal and earn respect. Here on, the effort came from her side,” Madan says.

Jiya has since been honoured with the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar award. Her longest swim has been the 36km stretch from the Bandra-Worli Sea Link to the Gateway of India in Mumbai. Every swim is dedicated to autism awareness. “A teacher once told me, it’s okay if she doesn’t understand history; she’ll soon be writing her own history,” says Rachana.

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