“Times of India (TOI) front full page obituary in color!” Major Menon in all his glory.

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Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) are some ways my brother and I addressed our father. This is a short, simple and uncomplicated tribute to someone whose life and actions can never be described as short, simple and uncomplicated. I present to you Major Rajendran Gopalan Menon on his first death anniversary.

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He left home, without his family’s approval, to join the Indian army as a jawan (junior most soldier). Went on to be a commissioned officer, was ‘Blue in Boxing’ at the academy, graduate of the Indian Army Staff College and also earned his Army mountaineering badge. He was an obstinate and difficult officer to manage but his regiment troops loved him. Very few officers would have won a popularity contest against him. From our standpoint he was meant to be in the army and should have ended his working career with them. However, that was not to be. His ego and his brutally honest rebuttals with seniors resulted in him taking pre-mature retirement after having served for 23 years. He had never spoken to us about his adventures in the Indo-Pak war or the Bodo militancy. Even Johnnie Walker failed us in this mission. 

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His work life outside the army was equally adventurous. He started working for the King of Jamnagar (in the state of Gujarat) and was responsible for the administration of many palaces, multiple properties and innumerable assets. He had won the trust of the King, but also made many enemies. This led to an attempt on his life in the open streets of Jamnagar. In true Bollywood movie style, he was attacked by a rival group in broad daylight. They, however, failed to smash his head with a metal rod, when on two occasions he barely managed to block the strike with his hand. This resulted in him gaining notoriety in the community and among his rivals as a tough ‘son of a bitch’.  

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Later in the state of Maharashtra, he created a niche in the industrial circle as a fearless front for companies dealing with rogue unions. He respected the unions till they followed the law and worked for the well being of the workers & the company. His claim to fame was a result of his courage, deep understanding of labor laws and wins against Datta Samant unions. During one of my Diwali vacations, I was home from boarding school (grade 7) and witnessed Liberty Oil Mill’s (dad’s employer) labor force on strike. These were violent times, with many managers receiving threats and some physically assaulted during their commute to the factory. Local police enforcements were called in and all managers commuted to the factory and back in armored vehicles. But not Major, he would walk (from the staff quarters) to work and ensure my mom’s blood pressure remained elevated. Late one night, he received a call from the security office, informing him about an increase in the unrest and injuries suffered by a few of the security guards. He immediately got into action and it probably was his army training, because I saw no hesitation in his mind about what he should be doing. He decided to walk to the factory once again, but this time with his Sony walkman, headphones and a torch light. I remember asking him to call for the armored vehicle and take the safe way to work. He simply stated “Beta (son), these jokers are cowards and I cannot let them think I am scared.” The walkman started playing music in full volume and he left home. I went to a window in the house, from where we could see the factory at a distance and joined my mother. Till date, I have not asked her what she thought or if she had even tried to stop him from leaving the house. In later days, I heard from many folks about how Major Menon walked right through the mob, with them shouting abuses, wielding instruments meant to cause bodily harm. He kept pointing his finger to the walkman and gesturing that he could not hear anything. In the town of Shahapur (in Thane district), Major Menon became a legend that night. There were many such stories that I would hear and be in awe of dad. Till his final days, some of the union members visited him or called mummy to check on his welfare and pay respect. It’s hard for me to think, that these very people had threatened and abused him.

He was not all legend material. He had many flaws and had caused deep pain to his immediate family (my mother, my brother and me) and had done that very consistently. However this is the one time, that I am giving him a free pass. This is my dad in all his glory.

I was very shy to talk to anyone over the phone. I had some form of phobia during my high school/college years. The only call I would make with full confidence was to dad when he would be at work. Answering my first question “What are you doing papa?” he would reply “I am masturbating!” He would follow that with a loud laugh and later comment about how lame my conversation starter was. This had become a running joke between the two of us. During his last year he was bed ridden, unable to talk, totally consumed by Alzheimer’s and I would manage to get a smile on his face with his very particular sentence. Guess this was dad’s way of showing Alzheimer’s the middle finger and I loved it.

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You release him into a party or gathering and he would quickly turn into a live wire. He excelled at being the Master of Ceremonies and had the ability to involve everyone to participate in games, jokes and walk away from the event feeling good about themselves. His system did need Johnnie Walker and other associates to get warmed up. There were many occasions, when after a party, he would not remember anything and would not care for it. I recall one such event when after a party at our home, Major was not to be found. Mummy, our community security guard and I looked all around the house and did not find him. We went over to some of our neighbors, who were also at the party, wondering if they were having an after party. However he was not to be found. We had an elementary school, a company club house and a soccer field across our house. Now smaller groups (many of whom were also drunk) were trying to locate Major. We finally spotted him sprawled flat on the soccer field. It was a crisp Indian winter early morning and he must have decided to recount his days as the battalion soccer goal keeper! It took some effort getting him back home (he was a large man). However, after his sleep his memory was wiped clean and he made it to work dot on time. I never attribute it to his antics, but both his sons have never had alcohol. He, however, never failed to take credit for his parenting techniques. 

Watching cricket on television with him was a treat. You could turn off the volume and just listen to his commentary. I was fortunate enough to witness many such games. I remember this 1996 world cup game between India and Pakistan. Aamir Sohail (a Pakistani opening batsmen) was on fire and he was dispatching Indian bowlers all over the park. Venkatesh Prasad (Indian medium pace bowler) apart from being hit for a boundary also got some verbal chatter from Aamir and in the very next ball Venkatesh got him out (clean bowled) and gave an equally fiery send off. Papa erupted with such a war cry that would have brought down the entire apartment building. Thankfully, the Indian team went on to win that game and everyone slept peacefully in the Menon household. 

He was a dreamer and he dreamt big. Life for him was always ‘king size’ and he was a total optimist. You show him the worst case scenario and he had the ability to think about a positive outcome. This was a trait that gave him success in life and also led him to many a financial debacle. You give him Rupees 100 and he would have planned to spend 300. That would not be spent on self or his immediate family, but for the community at large and non-family members. During his last years, when Alzheimer’s had not consumed him fully, I would joke about his obituary and what he would want me to write for him. His reply as always was ‘king size’…“Son, I want a Times of India (TOI) front full page color photo and glowing words about me!”. Just for reference TOI is like the NYT in India. I would laugh and ask him to transfer the money in advance for it. 

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This was my Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) for you.  As I type these sentences his smile, his warmth, his colorful language, his positive attitude to anything that life could present flashes in-front of me. I am certain if he is reading this post, he would be shaking his head and teasing me for being a chicken and taking the easy way out.

I sincerely request all readers to please share this post of mine and get him the views he would so enjoy. Thanks in advance to each one of you. 

Related data points:

“Yes, you can” own a home and 2019 is the year for it!

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Chitra and I had a child marriage, so we joke. She was 24 and I was 25. We had not lived away from our parents, we had not had any prior relationships, we were very naive, and we started with a zero bank balance. So if we could manage to buy our first home a year after marriage, I bet you can too.

It was 1997, we were in the second year of our MBA school. Chitra would, at times, drive her dad’s 118 NE (Fiat car) to our school. We took many drives along Palm Beach road in Nerul, New Mumbai, India – back then it would be scenic, quiet and romantic. A landmark we crossed often was, NRI Seawoods Complex (an upmarket residential community) and one day I remember telling her “I will own three homes and one will be in Seawoods!”. Important to state here, I was a very big Amitabh Bachchan (a Bollywood superstar) fan and had seen movies like Deewar countless times. If anyone remembers the scene where Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) gifts his mom an entire high rise, where she had once worked as an hourly wage laborer. I certainly had a theatrical flare brewing within me.

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My obsession of owning a home dates back to my high school and college years. Our family had gone through many financial turmoils and we would move from one rental to the next. Most of my friends back then had lived in one or two homes since birth. My ambition of owning three homes would have certainly seemed far fetched to Chitra. But then we were young, madly in love and said “yes” to everything the other person desired! Poor girl, she did not know what she was signing up for. 

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We both started our first job(s) in June 1998, got engaged in January 1999 and married in April 2000. If you are a couple making the decision of owning a home, I can’t emphasize how important it is for both parties to be totally sold to that goal. My family experiences had driven me to the point of being obsessive in chasing this goal. Chitra, however, came from a different background. She had never witnessed financial upheavals in her life. Before marriage, she had probably moved homes three times and owning a home was never in her immediate goals list. Visiting places, having a good time with me and being able to shop freely 😉 would have been her ideas of newly wedded bliss. She, however, bought into my dream and looking back I don’t think I gave her a choice. So Chitra, here I publicly announce “you made my dream come true and I shall always be indebted to you!”. 

I will not bore you all with our hardships of living on ultra savings mode during the first year of marriage or being obstinate about not taking a single Rupee from any of our family members. But here are some stories which we can never forget and will hopefully humor & encourage some of you on your path to first time home ownership.

Let me jump straight to 2001 – we were ready to buy our home. We selected a property and started our home loan application with ICICI Bank. Interestingly, I had signed their Credit Cards business division as one of Blue Dart’s (my employer) largest banking clients in the country. Also, Mr. Amitabh Bachchan was their brand ambassador, appearing in many TV commercials. Their marketing message was something in the lines of “aapka sapna, humara sapna” (“your dreams are our dreams”). So it was a shock, when ICICI declined our loan application a few days before our scheduled purchase date. Our dreams were being shattered due to a “technical error”. With assistance from my clients in ICICI, I got the email address of their Home Loan division chief and sent him a strong yet emotional plea. To my surprise, our home loan application got approved in 48 hours after sending that email. Mr. Bachchan continued to be one of my favorite heroes for many more years.

In 2002, Chitra started a new job with Euro RSCG, an advertisement agency. This move would bring us more money into the bank and help ease our month end agony of making ends meet. On her first day at work, their CEO had called for an employee town hall. The big announcement was that they had lost their biggest client ‘Phillips’ and operations were to get challenging. Chitra vividly remembers walking over to her manager’s office – Suman – and enquiring about the financial stability of the agency. Suman had laughed and stated “you don’t have to worry till they start cutting back on toilet paper!”. In later months, he also quoted “When you first buy a home, you feel broke. In a few months, you get used to being broke” A true leader and motivator! 🙂

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I had two close friends – Raj and Amal. Both these guys were single, lived with their parents (very common in India) and were unable to relate to my life. We all worked in the same office and spent a lot of time together in our commute to and from work. While I would talk to Chitra about depleting laundry supplies, groceries and bank accounts, they would make me the butt of their jokes. Many of those jokes would bring us all to tears. I had little then but that laughter helped me keep light of the situation. Life has made us all busy, but I can never forget both these jokers. Especially Raj, because he, like me, would be short on cash almost around the same time as me. Did I mention, that he had a very colorful lifestyle! Some Fridays, the three of us would visit a restaurant next to our office – Tunga Paradise – to eat some non-vegetarian food. It was a luxury for all of us and a break from the vegetarian food served in the office canteen. Our order used to be pretty standard – butter chicken, another meat dish and one veg dish or dal (lentil). At the end of our meal, the server would ask us for “any dessert” and our answer would always be “no, thank you”. He would get the bill with sugar coated fennel seeds. We would take time to pay, but very diligently finish off the sugar coated fennel seeds. That would be our dessert and not having to pay for it made it sweeter! A few visits later, the server started presenting the bill with very small portions of our ‘free dessert’. That would not stop us from asking for more and these sessions continued till we all moved on from that office. I hope some day we can all visit that restaurant and have some ‘free dessert’ together!

The only furniture in our new home after a year was a 7 x 7 feet custom ordered solid wood bed. We had designed it from scratch and the day it got delivered, I truly felt like a king. Even the mattress had to be custom ordered and like my brother would say “yeh bed nahin, ship hain!” (this is not a bed, it is a ship). We had bought a big home – it was a penthouse, with three bedrooms and three full baths and three large balconies. However, we didn’t rush to furnish it. We both left for work very early and returned equally late. The one thing we wanted was a comfortable bed, and my ‘ship’ rested us well. I can’t emphasize on how much I appreciate Chitra, for adjusting to these decisions. I may not have been so appreciative then but looking back, she was an angel. Ok honey, you have done enough damage since then with your shopping sprees! 

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Buying a car or a home? Early on in our lives, we had the choice of buying a car. We decided not to go that path and saved up for our home. In 2003, we had reached a stable financial position and were considering ownership of a car. I am a “BIG” car enthusiast and could not have been happier researching my options. After taking into account the monthly car payment, maintenance, parking fees, etc it came down to petrol (gas) cost. We had shortlisted the Tata Indica (diesel) and Maruti Suzuki Wagon R. Not able to make our choice, I took to some live data gathering! Getting stuck in Mumbai traffic was a daily occurrence on my commute to work. Whenever our auto (a three wheel taxi) would stop next to a Wagon R or Indica, I would knock on the window and motion the owner to roll the window down. Answering my questions the proud owner would share their pleasure of owning their car and specifically share with me mileage their car would give for a liter of petrol/diesel consumed. We were just a few weeks from a purchase decision when my company decided to relocate me to Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Today on Indian roads you see the best of  car brands but every time I see an Indica or Wagon R, it brings a smile to my face. A big ‘cheer’ to all Indica and Wagon R owners.

Did our decision to buy a home so early on pay off? 

A definite and resounding “YES”! In 10 years our first home’s value appreciated 329%. We have since then bought and invested in four properties. Do share with me your stories. Let 2019 bring you good health and memorable moments in your home!

Related data points:

Are you a ‘Human Manatee’?

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Our son, Yash, is an animal enthusiast and would go to any extent to observe and learn about their habitats. When he was seven, he agreed to wake up at 3am – while on vacation – and drive 2 hours to take a kayaking tour with alligators in the wild. I vividly remember this because it took a gentle whisper and he sprang out of bed all excited. Wish he would do that on school days!

For Yash’s 9th birthday, we had decided to take him to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. A few years back, in an inflight magazine I had read about Crystal Rivers, Florida. A small city, two hours north of Orlando, known to host for Manatees in the Crystal River. The city is located around Kings Bay, which have a number of springs, ensuring that the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Hence, in the winter, manatees move from the cool waters of Gulf of Mexico to Crystal Rivers. This is the only place in the USA where humans are legally allowed to observe Manatees up-close in their natural habitat.

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We had booked a 3 hour tour with ‘Fun 2 Dive – Swim with Manatees’ and after a brief training session were in the boat with our crew, looking for these gentle giants. River Manatees don’t have any natural predators and their number one enemy is boat rotor blades. They eat only greens, sleep 12 hours a day, swim, rest and make babies. No wonder they live long lives!

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Honestly, what amazed me the most about Manatees, was that they did not care about the large number of humans around them – entering their natural habitat. They went about their lives — eating, sleeping, swimming and being with their loved ones — as if we never existed. They were happy! This, to me, was the biggest take away. Can we humans also remain unaffected by our surroundings, people, events and positively carry on with life in a happy state? I believe there are such people, who I would like to call ‘Human Manatees’. Psychologists from the University of California who study happiness found that genetics and life circumstances only account for about 50% of a person’s happiness. So these ‘Human Manatees’ clearly have developed traits and ways to practice them always.

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” —Benjamin Franklin

I classify myself in the category of folks who are NOT ‘Human Manatees’. For people like me, it‘s important to identify any negative drivers that adversely impact my happiness index. We all exhibit behaviors that can be recognized by ourself or loved ones as signs of not being in a happy state. Each of us will have specific signs and it is in our best interest to be aware of them. Sharing a few indicators that I have come to track for myself – also it is appropriate for me to thank my wife, who promptly alerts me when she begins to observe a pattern. 

  • Indicator 1: Eating excessively is my first marker. I may not be eating ‘junk’ food, but that is my way of trying to mask this indicator. On a bad day, for example, I may end up eating a dozen ’dates’ after a good dinner. 
  • Indicator 2: Typically, 6 hours of sleep works best for me. Then there are times when I tend to sleep longer and despite the longer sleep cycle, I wake up lacking that purpose and drive.
  • Indicator 3: Procrastinate many activities. These activities may not be critical but the fact that I have a list piling up, bogs me down.

These indicators will vary person to person. My dad used to watch TV  and play cards (the game – patience) to de-stress himself. Since 1972, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted the General Social Survey to evaluate the social climate in the United States. Regardless of education, income, marital status or age, happier people surveyed watched about 30 percent less television each week than unhappier participants. On average, the happier respondents watched 19 hours of television, compared to 25 hours for the unhappy set. 

In an ideal world I would also be a ‘Human Manatee’ not impacted by the circus around me. Until then, let me continue improving my skills for early identification and early remedial action. Cheers to all those people on this journey to being a ‘Human Manatee’.

Related data points:

 

60 minutes every week can save you $500 or more a year!

If straight lines were not your thing in art class, this could be a difficult activity to pursue. We had curvy mohawk grass lines after Chitra, my wife, completed her first attempt at mowing our lawn! 

Having lived in town home communities we were spoilt by the services covered in our monthly assessment fee – like lawn mowing and snow removal. So a rude awakening awaited us, when we moved to our single family home in December 2013. Our first winter in the new home was not kind either and with my travel schedule, it was Chitra dealing with some heavy duty snow removal (we had not bought our snowblower then). So when Spring greeted us, we were quick to hire a lawn maintenance service provider. Their job entailed mowing the grass, trimming all the edges and clearing  refuse from the lawn. This service costed us $30 every week/visit. Their crew typically had 2 team members and finished the job in under 30 minutes. 

In 2016 we had new neighbors whom we got to know very well. I would observe each member of their family take turns every week in mowing their lawn. This also included their kids, then in middle and high school. To me it was a good activity for the kids to burn excess energy and help them learn a chore, that could be a source for earning some pocket money in future years.

With inspiration from our neighbors, in 2017 we invested in a lawn mower and trimmer.  Soon we picked up other supplies for the trade – refuse bags (if you are not mulching your cut grass), city pick-up stickers, gasoline can and gasoline. 

On day one the pressure was high with wifey, kiddo and our pet dog all focussing their eyes on me. I too was dressed for the job, with my gardening hat, gloves and a confident look. That confidence was soon tested because my machine would not start as easily as my car. You got to pull on this starter rope, which revs up with engine. It took a few pulls and a review of the owner’s manual, before it started. The first day was all exciting with everyone wanting to use the machine a bit – including my 8 year old son! We are not a big DIY family and the satisfaction we got to see a our maintained yard was very rewarding.

2018 was our second summer and I have begun to appreciate the value of being able to mow the lawn. Keeping the monetary savings aside, you can monitor the health of our lawn more effectively. You identify defect areas early on and can take remedial measures. Occasionally I have been my son’s hero for being able to find his lost/forgotten toys from our yard. There is the opportunity to talk to your neighbors or regular walkers – yes it does help you being more social. Don’t get me started on the health benefits of being outdoors & adding to your daily step count.

I say to all, if allergies are not an issue for you, get out and mow your own lawn. We have a 0.5 acre yard and I can complete my mowing and trimming routine between 45 to 60 minutes. My son, now 9, has had one training session with me and we hope he picks this chore up in the coming years. That is a “big hope”! 🙂

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Other related data points

  • Many of my purchases are based on recommendations by Consumer Reports
  • Toro 22” Personal Pace Smartstow Lawnmower: $374 + tax
  • Black & Decker 20V Electric String Trimmer: $89 + tax

15 minutes of hell: My first sprint triathlon

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In grade 7, I registered for a diving event – with one catch, I did not know how to swim! My only objective was to add participation points on the scoreboard for my team. We were not doing well in the event – low registration numbers was one of the factors. It was a decision, not under any compulsion or peer pressure, but self driven. Guess I am a good team player.

I had seen the diving pool and also witnessed some of our seniors practice. Was very confident of reaching the edge of the pool and being able to grab the inner railing and make my way out. On our first day of diving practice, I made my way up to level 1 of the diving board. No hesitation, no fear, I took position and jumped – my first dive ever. Here I would like to note, that I had been in swimming pools before – where the water level was low enough that I could stand and have fun with my friends. So in my defense I was not alien to water bodies. 

Popped out soon to catch a breath and then tried to swim to the inner railing. It was close and in just a few strokes my out stretched hands would get there. Then I remember not being able to make it. Memory fades a bit, I recall hearing the coach use his whistle and some seniors jumped in and pulled me out. The commotion had not rattled me. Then my coach asked me “Do you know how to swim?”.  Something he must now do before all newcomers line up for their first dive. When he understood my reason to participate and the fact that team ranking was my only goal, he laughed. The next few days I dived with a rope around my hip and he would pull me to the railing. Soon we did away with the rope and I was able to make it to the inner railing. Now that was my initiation to becoming a swimmer!

Fast forward 21 years, when my son was born, i knew he would learn how to swim early in life. He started his swim lessons at age 4 and today enjoys his time in the pool, in the deep end too! Watching him during his swim lessons rekindled the thought of learning to swim. I started in the lap pool and over a brief period was able to make it to the other end – 25 meters. However this pool was 6 feet at the deep end and I could stand to safety. I struggled getting better in the water and my progress stalled at 4 laps. Have to emphasize here, I had completed 2 full marathons and multiple half marathons. So, stamina or endurance was not my issue. 

Chitra, my wife, suggested registering for a local sprint triathlon event. She was convinced that setting a goal and investing the registration dollars would give me enough drive to do better and be more disciplined in my training. So at the age of 42, I registered for my first sprint triathlon and began focusing more on my swim training. Slowly I progressed to completing 8 laps but was unable to do more. My event was 8 months away, when I spoke to my friend and workout buddy Chandu, an anesthesiologist. He volunteered to give me some basic coaching. Either he was a true friend or Chitra and he were planning to get me out of their way. His presence with me in the pool and motivation was a turning point. We began doing around 14 laps but my poor form ensured I was getting winded. In the event I had to cover 375 meters swim which was around 16 laps, cycle 13.1 miles and run 3.2 miles. 

Enter coach Georgia with whom I signed up for some personal swim lessons. She knew my goal and helped me with my technique and I was able to see huge improvements. I invested in a good road bike and my training was now in full swing. With 2 months to my event, confidence levels were reasonably good, a very supportive wife on the home front and friends motivating me, I had a good shot at completing the event. 

On race day, pressure was high and watching better swimmers, who had earlier starts, complete their swim in 4 to 7 minutes did not help my nerves. My time had come and I started strong, however after about 50 meters in the deep waters I experienced my first ever panic attack. With hundreds of people in the open water I felt like a rock! My mind was unable to control to my arms and legs. I was sinking!!40f8f542-04f7-4aad-9591-7b0695d91ab4

Barely managed to grab on to the buoy at the 75 meter round-about and hold onto for dear life. There were many others who were in a similar state. Two life guards were in the water trying to pull some folks to safety. Many thoughts crossed my mind and more importantly I was able to take a few deep breaths. This break would have been around 30 to 45 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I began to swim again, however very soon I had the same sinking feeling. Now other swimmers were bumping against my hands & feet. If the first 75 meters were bad, it was only getting worse. In training, coach Georgia had taught me to roll over to backstroke, which I attempted to do. It was the right decision, enabling me to breathe deep and fast. It made a big difference, as I began to better my form and soon switched back to front strokes. This ordeal lasted 15:33 minutes and being able to stand back up on my feet never felt better. 

Transition 1 from swim to cycle took me 6:38 minutes and when I got onto my bike I was still not completely out of the shock. Slowly, my focus switched from saving my life to gaining lost time with my cycling speed. Both my cycling (49:07 minutes) and running (30:27 minutes) phases went as planned and my overall time was clocked at 1:45:21. IMG_5159

Looking back I could not have done this without the support of Chitra, the constant motivation from Chandu and life saving skills offered by my swim coach Georgia. So what’s next? I plan to participate in the same event again next year and my only goal is to walk out of the swim phase not having a panic attack.

Related data points:

  • School I attended: Barnes School, Devlali, Nashik, Maharastra, India
  • Event participated: Naperville Sprint Triathlon 2018
  • Others whose swimming skills inspired me: Nikhil P., Sara F. & James W.