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Testing the Waters

Ever since I was a baby, it has been extremely important to my parents that I play a sport. Both

of them used to be athletes themselves, as well as their parents– my mother and my maternal

grandfather used to swim and dive and my father and paternal grandfather used to sail. I tried a

range of sports – tennis, squash, football, sailing, badminton and swimming. Eventually I think

it came down to what felt most natural to me – being in the water. I’ve always said water runs in

my veins because of my family history with the pool and the sea and I picked what I felt most

comfortable with.

At the age of six, I started swimming competitively. At the time, I was still sailing as well – a

part of me didn’t want to disappoint either parent by picking just one of their sports and

eventually I couldn’t find a way to fit both into my life. I picked swimming because the pool is

always where I’ve felt most at home, where anything I’m worrying about automatically drowns

itself away, where a bad day becomes so much better and where I am most myself.

Even though I picked swimming as my sport – it wasn’t always smooth sailing. My friends were

better and faster than me – I got used to coming in fifth and sixth place. Most of my friends

qualified for their first nationals at the age of ten and won gold medals. That same year, a

national coach told my mother to think of putting me in another sport because he didn’t think I

had what it takes to be a national level swimmer. Swimming was something that made me happy

and I wasn’t ready to give it up just yet.

Everybody’s body develops at a different rate – at the age of ten, I found that hard to

understand. My mother started reading up on how to use science to get me to where my friends

were and at the age of eleven, I missed qualifying for the nationals by 0.01 seconds. That day I

realized just how long a single 0.01 second is.

I have had a love hate relationship with 0.01 second since that day. All the time and effort I put

in to get to where I was, and it came down to a hundredth of a second.  It represented the great

chasm between what I wanted and what I hadn’t got.


There is an infinite set of numbers in every minute. There’s 1.53, 1.535, 1.54 and so on and so

forth. But my life has been driven by a single number that separates all moments of life - 0.01


This number became my number one nemesis. It was the difference between nationals and

regionals, the difference between shattering records and just winning, the difference between

victory and defeat all because I touched the wall 0.01 second too late. It pushed me to do that one

extra workout, that one extra push up, that one extra practice start. Rather insidiously, this foe

became my friend. Every 0.01 second that I conquered in the pool became a moment to

celebrate. Millions of 0.01 seconds stitched together formed years of preparation and eventually,

at the age of twelve, I qualified for my first national championship.

Qualifying for my first national meet eventually turned into qualifying for my first national

final, getting my first national medal and eventually my first national gold. There are few things

as amazing as the feeling of standing on block before your race and hearing your name being

called followed by your state. There’s an immense sense of pride intertwined with nervousness

and excitement every time I think of that moment. It’s the moment I dreamed of since I started

competitively swimming – the moment I actually became established in the swimming world. It

was the day all the 5am wake ups, not being able to do all the things my friends were, and all the

extra work paid off.

Throughout my time of being a national athlete, I’ve had some of the biggest ups and downs.

Unfortunately, I am an extremely injury prone person and I started getting injured so much so

that my coach would say, “if Ari doesn’t get injured before we leave for the nationals she isn’t

going to perform well.” And it eventually became a running joke at my club. I’ve had to swim

national races with a broken elbow, a broken wrist and running 103-degree fever to give you

some examples. And yet, I refused to give up at any point because swimming has given me so


Swimming has given me a new family – my team. The people I would see day in and day out

and somehow never get tired of. Eventually, when it was time to leave for college – the pool and

my team were two of the hardest things to say goodbye to. My team has seen me at my best and

my worst, and vice versa for me with all of them, and because of that, we have the closest

relationship. To this day, teammates I trained with when I was nine and ten are still some of my

best friends.

In 2016, I used my sport to support 5 NGOs by founding India’s first ever inter-school

Swimathon. The event saw 150 students from 7 different schools come together to raise $40,000

for charity.

I also wanted to do my part to try and give something back to a sport that has given me so much

and so in 2018, I decided to write a booklet encasing everything I’d learned when I was

struggling to qualify for my first nationals.

The “The Young Athlete” is my labour of love, my swansong, and my way of helping budding

athletes in India. “She’ll never make it to the nationals, think of putting her in another sport” -

are words still haunt me, and I wondered how many children are written off even before their

talent has time to bloom.

“The Young Athlete” is a project very close to my heart because I don’t want any child to

experience the heartbreak that I felt. It serves to answer many questions they may have at the

start of their athletic journey. There is a particular focus on explaining how puberty and peak

height velocity affect athletic ability at a young age so early results are not a reflection of long-

term success or failure.

“The Young Athlete” took me six months to compile but covers years of painstaking research.

For years I have searched for ways to improve performance: nutrition, functional training,

optimal levels of vitamins and the importance of sleep. I realised that repetitive movements lead

to injuries like tendonitis and how difficult it is to train the small muscle below the scapula. I

learnt how to balance academic and social pressures while being an athlete.

Some incredible people helped me – coaches, doctors, fellow swimmers and sports medicine

specialists who shared valuable pieces of information that made the difference. All this

information is being passed on in the “The Young Athlete” to give back to the sporting


“The Young Athlete” started as an idea but today it is taking a life of its own. It has received

funding from one of India’s leading companies Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) that sponsors

the New York, Mumbai and Amsterdam Marathons for printing - validation that there is a need

for this kind of material for young athletes in India.  

Life is about experiences and I want to have as many as I can. But like most athletes, for me,

time is always a challenge. When I truly appreciated that 0.01 second is a very long time and I

have a multitude of them, I realized just how much time I really have.

The two biggest lessons my friend 0.01 second has taught me serve me well every day. Failure

comes in 0.01 second but the very next 0.01 moment is an opportunity to try again. Success also

comes in 0.01 second but only hard work ensures continuous success.

My life so far has been a series of exciting adventures of 0.01 seconds. I have found the way to

grab life with both hands and love it because like taking the perfect picture, the devil is in the


Although I no longer swim competitively because I have decided to focus more on my

academics in college, swimming made me the person I am today. All the wins, the losses, the

good times, the bad times, and everything in between. Swimming taught me the importance of

sportsmanship, what it’s like to work in a team, to never give up no matter how bad things seem

and nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it.

~Ariesa Mongia

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