Making waves

When her parents were discussing a wedding proposal for her, 21-year-old Sandhya Udupikar wasn’t lurking in the shadows, listening in. She was in the swimming pool, directing every ounce of her energy into rigorous practice.

“Vilas, the young man who had come to “see” me that day, had to wait till I returned at 6:30 pm. And then, instead of decking up in finery for the much-awaited dekko, all I was focused on was my exhausted and ravenous state,” she says.
For the record, Vilas and Sandhya have just completed 26 years of marriage, during which Sandhya not only won recognition as an ace swimmer, a coach and a life-saving skills trainer, but also travelled extensively, encouraging young people — women, in particular — to take up swimming seriously.

As a young girl, Sandhya recalls being enchanted by stories of how her paternal grandmother, Lakshmi, loved to swim in the open wells in their village in Udupi. “Years later, it thrilled me that my grandma would come to the swimming pool in Pune while I practised,” she says, adding that it was her father Ramakrishna Udupikar,  who dunked her in the pool when she was all of five!

“I’ve always enjoyed a lot of freedom,” she continues, “all three of us — my two older brothers and I — used to practically live in the pool or the playground! My parents never ever told me, ‘You are a girl, so you need to be home by 7 pm’.
At the Renuka Swaroop Memorial Girls High School in Pune, where she was enrolled, sports meant a big deal. “After school, I practised for close to two hours at the SP College swimming pool. I was 10 years old when I started advanced training. Other girls in class would go for music lessons and I would head out to the pool. Swimming remains my idea of fun,” she says.

She remembers roping in a few classmates and some friends from her apartment complex, so that the girls could swim together. When she was in Class 11, the club’s office-bearers asked her to train their women members.

Sandhya would have gladly continued coaching the ladies and a few physically challenged kids, but an incident in 1985 changed her perspective.

“A strapping 17-year-old drowned in the club’s pool. It shocked me that such a tragedy could happen in a controlled environment. A few years later, when I came across a life-saving skills training programme, being offered by the Rashtriya Life-Saving Society of India (RLSSI) in Pune, I was the first to sign up. I had to swim 500 mts in 10 minutes to qualify.”

The training involved 26 protocols in first-aid, where she learnt everything from bandaging a wound to giving CPR.

She insists that she’s never ever felt like a trail blazer. “I thought it was a natural progression for a swimmer and a coach,” she insists.

The sense of achievement did not even sink in when she was chosen to lead a team of six (all five others in the team were men) to visit Australia in 2003 for advanced life-saving skills training by the Royal Life-Saving Society.

The three weeks spent in Perth taught her that life-saving skills training is all about what NOT to do in an emergency. “More damage is inflicted by inaccurate handling of the victim,” she says. She returned with upgraded skills and a Bronze Medallion Certificate in Life-Saving.

Since then, Sandhya has been conducting workshops in schools, colleges, aquatic clubs and corporate houses. “It thrills me to see young women become lifeguards. Women are hardworking, sincere and very alert to risks,” she says.

She has a word of caution for youngsters who throng popular picnic spots that have waterfalls. “Carry a first-aid kit and find out where the nearest hospital is right when you plan the outing,” she says.

Sandhya runs Champion Aquatic Club in Pune and heads Astitva Lifesaving Training and HRS, India.

She swims religiously, trains young swimmers and honess her life-saving skills at every opportunity she gets. But what gives her the greatest high is her ringing phone! “Earlier, I used to hound people about safety; now my phone rings constantly with questions and requests. That’s a good beginning, isn’t it?” she asks.

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