Hiyamallar Shalom spent a few days with our eleven-time Channel Swimmer Karteek Clarke in his Edinburgh home, and pressed him for a few stories about his Channel swimming feats:
Picture this: it is a beautiful summer morning, and you are awakened by the sound of Bach being played on the violin as the sun splashes through the windows of your room in a lovely tree-lined city with almost fairytale architecture...idyllic, perhaps. On the other hand, you are crazy cold, hugging your blanket, because this is Edinburgh, a city which has no decent respect for the seasons, and your flatmate has already a) gotten up b) gone to the Commonwealth Pool (in the early morning!) and c) swum laps for hours. So begins another day in Scotland in the flat of Karteek Clarke, swimmer extraordinaire.
While I was staying in Endinburgh with Karteek, I was able to have my ever-modest, if not self-effacing friend, talk about some aspects of his swimming not found elsewhere. I began by asking how he got the initial inspiration to take up long-distance swimming.
In 1994, after reading some of the thrilling adventures of our earlier Channel swimmers, Karteek had the idea that he might like to try doing this. However, unlike most people (such as 99.99% of us), he went down to Dover shortly after and spent only a few weeks swimming in the harbor, perhaps doing one six-hour swim, his longest swim ever up to that time! (to put this in perspective, he routinely does two back-to-back days of six hours each for his crossings these days)
Three weeks later he attempted his first Channel swim, and achieved an incredible twelve hours in his first experience of swimming in open water, before his inexperience and relative lack of training led to an end of that try. The following year, after having had more time to prepare, he was fully trained and ready to go, but one hour prior to the scheduled departure of his boat, the weather turned and he lost his spot. Due to other commitments, he was unable to stick around and try again.
Finally, in 1997 he had his breakthrough first successful Channel crossing, which he describes as a "long hard swim" that took 11 hours and 57 minutes. That August, he vistied Sri Chinmoy in New York, and recieved his spiritual name, Karteek, the basic meaning being that of the "Divine warrior", who "places his teeming victories at the feet of the Lord Supreme".
In 1999 Karteek successfully entered and completed the Lake Zürich 26-km race put on by the Swiss Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team. He had an excellent experience, and this reenergized his swimming. Thus inspired, he wondered if he could repeat his earlier crossing and decided to give it another go in 2000. What followed was one of his most difficult races, in windy conditions and with the development of sea sickness, which took him over fifteen hours to complete!
At point afterwards, Sri Chinmoy called and asked Karteek how many times he had swum the Channel. When he was told that he had done it twice, he asked Karteek to swim the Channel two more times. Karteek agreed readily and proceeded to do just that, undergoing adverse conditions and having difficult crossings on each occasion. After four successful crossings, Sri Chinmoy again called and this time told Karteek that he should swim the Channel three more times!
In reminiscing about these phone calls, Karteek remembers that while outwardly at times he might wonder what the point would be in repeating the swim, in each case Sri Chinmoy acted as the “perfect psychologist” as he puts it. To quote Karteek, he “picked up on my wish” to keep challenging himself, and his request came at just the right moment each time. On every occasion he was asked to swim the Channel, he had the feeling of intense joy, adding that he never felt forced to do this event, recognizing that Sri Chinmoy was confirming what he already felt - despite the fact that the fifth, sixth, seventh (and even the eighth) crossings were all accomplished under difficult conditions and took over sixteen hours! Sri Chinmoy told him that while patience was needed to do long distance swimming, “you also need to develop speed,” as “speed is determination”.
Now that Sri Chinmoy is no longer with us physically, Karteek still feels an inner urge to continue his Channel swimming; he has completed eleven at the time of writing.