Arati Saha took to swimming at the age of 4 and was encouraged by her coach Sachin Nag to participate in competitive events. She won 22 state-level titles between 1945 and 1951 and also set a national record in 1949. Arati was keen to take on a larger challenge. Inspired by the example of Mihir Sen, the first Asian man to swim across the English Channel, she set out to accomplish this feat.
The English Channel, also simply called the Channel, separates England from Europe, specifically the coastal region of Northern France. Its width ranges from 33.1 km (20.6 miles) at the Strait of Dover, where most swimmers attempt the Channel crossing, to 240 km (150 miles) at its widest point. The English Channel connects the North Sea to the Atlantic and is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Swimming across the English Channel is not free of danger, with sharks and stinging jellyfish being particular threats. Strong tides and sheer exhaustion caused during this endurance swim can also prove fatal. At least 8 swimmers have lost their lives while attempting a Channel crossing over the years.
Arati got trained in the arduous process of training, as an endurance feat of this nature requires both physical and mental preparation. Accompanied by a pilot team who helped her navigate through the English Channel, Arati Saha swam across the English Channel from Cape Gris Nez in France to Sandgate on the English coast near Dover on 29th September 1959, when she was just five days away from her 19th birthday. She swam for 16 hours and 20 minutes and covered a distance of 42 miles. After arriving at Sandgate she unfurled the Indian flag as a sign of victory. The English Channel conquest was not just a victory for her, but also for the women of Asia. It was an eye-opener for the rest of the world, who till then believed that Indian women rarely ventured outside their kitchen gardens. India recognized her inspiring feat by awarding her the Padma Shri in 1960. Arati Saha was also recognized by the Indian Postal Department in 1999, which included her in a series of stamps on pioneering Indian women by issuing a 3 Rupee stamp with her image on it.