On a warm morning of February 17, 2021, the frenzied cacophony at Mumbai’s Gateway of India was replaced by peals of laughter and claps emanating from the jetty where swimming organisers were calling out in excitement to 12-year-old Jiya Rai as she reached land. The child made history when she swam from Bandra-Worli Sea Link to the Gateway of India, a distance of over 36 kilometers, in a record eight hours and 40 minutes. And, just for the record, she is autistic.
And, as she touched land, 61-year-old Uma, Jiya’s maternal grandmother received her, lauding yet another accomplishment; One that not many ‘normal’ children could dream of achieving. And as Jiya climbed out, she looked effortless in her demeanour, oddly unique for one who had completed such an arduous task and strolled about oblivious of her feat. Jiya can’t quite make conversation in ways most understand but swims like a champion and knows one thing the best…to win even amidst adversity!
The event, conducted to create awareness about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), began at the Sea Link when Jiya started swimming while it was still dark at 3.50 am in the morning. “It was a very proud moment for us. My husband and I were with her throughout in the pilot’s boat that was leading Jiya to give her direction,” says Jiya’s mother Rachana Rai.
With this, Jiya has become the youngest girl, diagnosed with ASD, to swim 36 kilometres in the open sea. Last year, at the age of 11, she created a world record as the fastest ‘special’ girl to swim 14 kilometres in open waters when she swam from Elephanta Island to Gateway of India on 15 February 2020 in a record of three hours, 27 minutes and thirty seconds.
Born on May 10, 2008 in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, Jiya grew up in Cochin, Goa and Mumbai where her father Madan Rai, a Junior Commissioner Officer (JCO) with the Indian Navy was posted over the years.
It was on Jiya’s second birthday when her parents first realised she behaved differently from the other children. “While everyone was playing together, Jiya wanted to be with herself. She just sat in one corner with our dog Gary,” recalls mother Rachana.
The worried parents took the baby to a naval paediatrician in Cochin, where the family then resided, who recommended they visit a senior doctor. “It was this doctor who first told us that Jiya had mild autism. At the time, we didn’t know what it meant and were completely clueless about the way ahead,” maintains Rai.
Among most things, it’s interesting to know how Jiya started swimming. “Jiya was always a water baby and would spend hours happily in a water tub,” says Rachana. “I remember she was just over two-year-old when we first took her to a swimming pool. She was the happiest as she splashed in those waters. Jiya had just found a bigger tub to play in. Why, she’d even love pushing others in it!” she exclaims.
The parents’ journey has been as arduous and inspiring as Jiya’s. “While I was a trained swimmer, I was not good at teaching. Even swimming coaches didn’t help as they would often ignore Jiya because of her condition. My wife, on the other hand, is a wonderful teacher but didn’t know how to swim. So, she decided to learn it herself and then taught Jiya,” notes Rai.
Jiya’s mother left her teaching job to devote her entire time to Jiya. She even adopted the role of a ‘shadow teacher’, to assist Jiya with her special needs, especially in her early school years. “It was a big decision but I knew no one could take care of Jiya better than me,” feels Rachana.
Due to her autism-related delay in speech, Jiya cannot communicate verbally. “She is a very sensitive child. She can read my face and tell if I am upset or sad.” Jiya has a very strong sense of right and wrong and is very vocal about it. She’ll say ‘mama right’ or ‘mama wrong’ if she sees someone swimming in the right or wrong manner.
Like most families with autistic children, the Rai family faced their share of social ostracism and ridicule. In 2012, when the family travelled to their native Azamgarh for a family function, “a relative didn’t let Jiya come out and mingle with the rest. She was embarrassed to introduce Jiya to others. It was really upsetting,” says a livid-as-ever Rachana who remembers the incident distinctly till date.
True to her name, Jiya continues to live on…surpassing all expectations, quashing social detractors and making history along the way.