Indian swimmer Arati Saha has been honored on September 24th’s Google Doodle in recognition of her 80th birthday.
A pioneering marathon swimmer, in 1959 she swam 42 miles from Cape Gris Nez, France to Sandgate, England, which made her the first Asian woman to swim across the English Channel.
Google Doodles are stylized versions of its traditional logo that are used to recognize cultural events or historical figures. This Doodle was drawn by Kolkata native and guest artists Lavanya Naidu.
When she was only 11 years old, she represented India at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. That was India’s first Olympic Games after gaining independence from the United Kingdom, and the country’s first as an independent nation at the Olympic Games.
One of 4 women to represent the country at the Olympics that year, she finished 33rd out of 33 legal swimmers in the 200 meter breaststroke, touching in a time of 3:40.8 – almost 50 seconds behind eventual winner Eva Szekely of Hungary.
That would not be the highlight of her swimming career, however. At 18, she made her first attempt at crossing the English Channel, inspired by legendary Indian swimmer Mihir Sen, who became the first Indian swimmer to cross less than a year earlier.
In her first attempt, in 1959, as part of a group of 58 swimmers intending to race across the Channel, her pilot boat did not arrive on time and she left 40 minutes after the field – losing the best conditions. A strong current forced her to stop just 3 minutes from the English coach.
Later in 1959, she tried again, and this time was successful. Given the history between her country and the UK, when she arrived on the English coast and lifted an Indian flag, it was a symbolic moment.
During the crossing, she covered roughly 42 miles because of waves and rough conditions, which is about double the distance as that taken on by today’s swimmers.
According to the artist Lavanya Naidu, Saha is a “household name” for those growing up in Kolkata, and in the 1990s there was even a stamp issued with her on it.
In 1960, she was the first Indian sportswoman to earn the Padma Shri award, which is an honor of distinction for Indians of various levels of cultural distinction.
A number of other swimmers and aquatic athletes have been honored with Google Doodles. That includes Vicki Draves, a diver, who was honored in August of this year, Fanny Durack, a swimmer, who was honored in 2018, and early Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who was honored in 2015.