“Swimming has been a way for me to get close to myself,” says 30-year old Bhakti Sharma, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida and a record-holding open water swimmer, holding the record for being the youngest to swim in every ocean in the world. Her swimming career, which includes holding the world record for completing a 1.4-mile swim in 41.14 minutes in the 34-degree waters of Antarctica (making her the youngest and first Asian women to do so) began at the age of just 2 1⁄2 with the encouragement of her mother, Leena, also an accomplished swimmer and athlete. Sharma explains that despite sports not being a priority for girls in her home country of India, her mother believed that all girls should know how to ride a bike and swim. Being a swimmer herself, Sharma’s mother saw talent in her and knew that she had what it would take to do great things.
But, training wouldn’t come easy. With a swimming career that started in pools up until the 10th grade, finding year-long access to those pools to continue training year-round gave some trouble. While living in Udaipur, Rajasthan, known as the “City of Lakes” (Udaipur is a city in the state of Rajasthan in India) with very cold winters and very dry hot summers and no access to year-round pools, Sharma’s mother had to get creative to make sure her daughter could train. “Because my town gets very severe winters [so] the pools shut down for five or six months of the year because we don’t have all season pools… so, I would lose out on a lot of practice,” Sharma said. “So, my mom would request to the pool owners to keep it open, and I would just try to push it as long as I could in the cold weather.”
With no teammates or outside coach, the long winter months of training became lonely. “I was the only one in the pool for November and December, so I just became very bored,” she said. But, knowing how much her parents had invested in her talent, she pushed on with her training, despite being solo in her efforts. “My mom pushing me and me pushing [me] so that I don’t disappoint her because I know how much they were putting into my training and focusing on me.”
It was during those long winters and while training in the non-temperature controlled pool that Sharma started testing herself, her ability to handle the cold water and her ability to run on her own will power. “Every year I could stay longer… The first year I could swim to November, the next year I could swim to December and before I knew it, I was swimming through the whole winter… Now, when looking back I am like ‘what were you doing’,” Sharma said.
With a long list of impressive records under her belt, it is clear that she must have had a good idea of what she needed to do. On July 6, 2006, at the age 16, after 13 hours and 55 minutes, Sharma successfully crossed the English Channel on a solo swim from Shakespeare Beach, Dover England to Calais, France. She shares that this had always been a dream of her mother’s to complete as well, so, when a time presented itself for her mother to have the opportunity to swim the channel, they took it. Despite their first attempt being halted by bad weather, large waves and hours of seasickness, their second attempt was a success. In 2008, along with Priyankia Gehlot, a student whom Leena had been training for the swim, the three ladies successfully swam the English Channel as a relay team. Sharma holds the world record with her mother for being the first mother-daughter pair to swim across the English Channel. And, the list of open water accomplishments goes on.
In addition to others, Sharma has also completed the “Swim Around the Rock” (Alcatraz) swim in the Pacific Ocean, won a gold medal in the marathon swim around Key West, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean; crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea at Tarifa, Spain; participated in the USA Swimming Open Water Championships in the Gulf of Mexico in Fort Myers, Florida; and most notably, she set a world record by completing a 1.4-mile swim in 41.14 minutes in the Antarctic Ocean with a water temperature of 34 degrees.
But, accomplishments don’t come without sacrifices, fears and stressors, even for those holding world records. As an open water swimmer, the water temperature and your goggles aren’t the only things you need to worry about when entering the water. You are swimming through abundant sea life, both friendly and not.
“I am afraid of everything!” Sharma exclaimed. She admits she hasn’t watched Jaws or movies like that, but while training in Dover, she did break her own rule. “I was training for the channel, and I was in Dover. We stayed there for a month to get me acclimated to the sea, and I ended up watching Harry Potter… where they have the competition and he has to go into the lake and there are mermen…,” she said. “My training was a nightmare for the next ten days!”
While doing the Strait of Gibraltar swim in waters that are known for sharks and whales, as she took a breath, she shared that she saw a fin. I told myself, “you are imagining it,” and kept going. Upon exiting the waters at the end of her swim, her mother shared there was an entire school of whales that were swimming with her. “I trick myself into believing that I am imagining stuff even if I see something.”
It’s not only external elements that can pose obstacles to reaching goals. “I have a massive fear of competition,” Sharma said. “So, if I put a lot of pressure on myself and I am competing, it takes the joy out of competing. When I am doing these swims, my mom always told me since early on… ‘it doesn’t matter if you win or not, just finish the race.’ So, that has been my motto for everything in my life. I really don’t like quitting, so that keeps me going.”
While physically fit and at their best, athletes can also hide other emotions deep down, such as depression and taking care of their mental health. “Athletes suffer severely from depression, too,” she said. “I did that, too, and it’s so much that people don’t talk about it.” For Sharma, her depression was triggered by having to start from scratch each time and proving herself constantly to find sponsors. She says largely it comes from having a high when you get your record then followed by a severe low, creating a gap that is unfilled.
Today, Sharma is immersed in her Ph.D. studies with a focus on Media Psychology, and since coming here in 2017, she has been training with coach Erin Condon at Gator Swim Club to get professional open water training. “I actually came here because I thought that I wanted to get the fear of competition out, so I wanted to train for the world championships and the Olympics,” Sharma said. She has her eyes set on completing the Ocean 7, a marathon swimming challenge that consists of seven open water channel swims. It includes the North Channel, The Cook Strait, the Moloka’i Channel, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, the Tsugaru Strait and the Strait of Gibraltar. Bhakti Sharma has completed two of the seven, and while she doesn’t know where she will venture off to after her studies are complete, she will continue to look to the next goal and adventure, and she’ll take them one at a time while never quitting.
Fun Facts About Bhakti
- She has swam all 5 oceans in the world
- She was born in Mumbai
- Her favorite restaurant in Gainesville is The Top
- She has a Ted Talk about resilience
- She is a vegan
- In 2012, she received the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award
- She was 14 when she swam her first open water swim from Uran port to Gateway of India