Bangladesh has not earned any Olympic laurels ever. In the current sports arena, cricket and football dominate television and social media news waves. Beside the much-vaulted champions of the pitch, a hero once made strides in the swimming pool bringing Bangladesh to the attention of the wider sporting world.
The man was Brojen Das, widely known as the first Asian to swim across the English Channel as well as setting the world record for swimming the channel a record level of 6 times. Born in 1927 in Bikrampur, in what is now part of Munshiganj district, Das grew up in what is known as the Ganges belt. As luck would have it, his first experience with water was rather an ironic start for a star swimmer: he almost drowned at the age of four in a pool. Quite, a fine stepping stone.
Calming his nerves against the torrent of the Ganges as the years passed by, he quickly climbed up the ranks getting his swimming abilities noticed paving way for multiple victories in local competitions. In a sweep of astonishing feats in numerous freestyles of swimming, Das had won the East Pakistan swimming competition. Consequently, in becoming the national swimming champion of Pakistan in the 100m and 400m freestyles, he had become a top favorite for making it to the 1956 Australia Olympics as part of Pakistan’s swimming team. Unfortunately, bad luck struck as an injured arm sidelined his entry.
Disappointed but never not full of hope, he decided to try out his luck in the annual English Channel Swimming Competition in 1958 which he saw as an opportunity of a lifetime and a lifeline to secure his swimming credentials in the history books. Brojen successfully completed the Mediterranean swimming competition from Capri to Naples prior to this. A man of stout physique and being the only South Asian privy to racial slurs, he was widely seen as an underdog by his competitors.
Brojen wanted to set records in swimming and it was his raw determination that got him to persevere over the cold European waters. For someone coming from hot and humid climates, the weather was his biggest barrier. Training at night with oil and grease sprayed on him to deter the chances of getting a cold, he was a spectacle for those who came to see the Channel at night. Conquering the Channel on a yearly basis from 1958-1960, Brojen’s final adieu ended with him swimming the English Channel for the last and sixth time in 1961. Edging on his strokes inch by inch, the Bengali swimmer from Pakistan had swam the Channel in a record-breaking time of 10 hours and 35 minutes, cutting time by being 15 minutes early, creating a new world record thus earning himself the moniker – “King of the Channel”. A record of hitting the shore and crossing the Channel six times had gotten his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Beguiled by his records and victories, the Queen and Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India called upon him to be their guest. A Hall of Famer in the world of swimming, he was the coach of swimmers in Bangladesh. Dying of cancer in 1998, he was a hero to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis alike, being awarded their top national honors – Pride of Performance and Independence Day Award – respectively. The King had finally departed but not without making his admirers and countrymen happy and honored to have had him.