In September 2016, when multiple Olympic medallist Michael Klim visited India to launch his skin care brand, he and his sister specially remembered to visit a special person in the maximum city of Mumbai. The 81-year old lady was Khorshed Bhathena, to whom Klim dedicated an exceptional message- ‘What I am today is because of you’.
Khorshed Bhathena was a Swimming instructor for 51 years who taught children, elite and senior citizens of Bombay, the city that eventually came to be known as Mumbai. But Bhathena remained the same, challenging the signs of ageing; she kindled her passion till she breathed her last on 11th September 2019. What she left are innumerable fond memories among her students and her most prized possession- the message of Klim on an autographed picture of himself holding up all his Olympic medals.
Khorshed Bhathena spent her childhood in pre-independent Kolkata among green farms, clear ponds and blue sky. She watched for hours how ducks and ducklings swam across the ponds, perhaps from where she aspired to be a swimmer. In 1950s, Bhathena’s family shifted to Bombay leaving all her precious childhood memories back in Calcutta except her wish to swim. In Bombay, Bhathena wanted to start her swimming career but she could not find a proper swimming pool. So she literally threw herself into the water and became her own teacher.
Once in college, Khorshed Bhathena became part of St Xavier’s College Swimming team. As her career started competitively, the young lady ruled the waters. She was always more interested in long-distance Swimming. Her most famous achievement was her 15-hour non-stop swim for a distance of almost 90 kms from Dharamtar to the Gateway of India. She also participated and won the Sunk Rock to Gateway race held by the state government.
In the meantime, Khorshed met her life partner, coincidentally with the name Naval, who was the swim coach at Willingdon Club. Mr Bhathena refined the strokes of his wife and made her a more competitive swimmer. But after some years of competitive Swimming, Khorshed Bhathena had to discontinue due to a serious muscle tear. It was at that time she decided to share her passion with others, by teaching them how to swim. First she began to teach her friends and their children but gradually the husband-wife duo became the most trusted trainers at Breach Candy Swimming Bath Trust.
Bhathena had a list of elite students who trained under her for several years. From meritorious students who became state and national champions, clocking record timings to the Tatas, Birlas and Ruias, Khorshed memorized each and every student of her. For 51 long years she genuinely “kept three generations of South Bombay from going under”. But she always fondly remembered Michael Klim as a child who came to her for Swimming lessons at the age of three. She once said, “Back then he stood out and would beat boys twice his age. I always knew he was talented and I take pride in his achievements.”
Klim also spiritedly narrated some of the early encounters with his teacher. “My father Wojtek was a Polish diplomat, who was posted in Bombay from 1978-1982. We used to stay in Malabar Hill and go to learn swimming under Khorshed every day at the Breach Candy club. I have a deep connection with this city as I’ve taken my baby steps in the pool here. The seeds of my success were sown here in Bombay.”
As age grew, Khorshed Bhathena rarely went inside the pool to teach but had a unique style of commanding from the bench. But this neither created confusion nor took away the belief of her students. That trust was her support; the support that kept her on the move. Khorshed Bhathena’s each day started at six in the morning and ended at around eight in the evening, untill the last day of her life.