fbpx
Jiya Rai set world records in swimming for her age and for persons with disabilities
Jiya Rai set world records in swimming for her age and for persons with disabilities | Photo Courtesy of Madan Rai

13-year-old autistic girl swims the Palk Strait, sets world record

I don’t understand most things when I swim, I just know I need to be ahead of the other swimmers. Understanding when to be happy or what the prize is eludes me. I only know my parents seem happy when I succeed.

Interview Subject
Jiya Rai was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of two, a neurological disorder that impacts a person’s ability to perceive, socialize and communicate, among other behavioral aspects. She took up swimming as a form of therapy and went on to create world records in open waters.

She swam from Elephanta Island to the Gateway of India in Mumbai in three hours, 27 minutes, and 30 seconds, securing her a spot in the India Book of Records, Asian Book of Records, and Limca Book of Records for the youngest and first specially abled girl in the world to achieve this milestone. She was also awarded the Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puraskar in 2022 under the open water swimming category, the highest award for citizens below 18 years of age.
Background Information
Touted to be the third most common developmental disability in the world, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurological disorder usually manifested by the age of two or three. In India, it is reported that around 18 million people have autism. Children with autism are often sidelined from normal children and face difficulty in socializing. Not every autistic child can find a place in mainstream school as they need a more structured environment in order to facilitate their learning. As of now, there is no cure for autism. However, there are medications and therapies to help people cope with it. Activities like swimming act as therapy, helping autistic patients improve concentration and attention span.

MUMBAI, India — When I decided to swim across the Palk Strait – the sea channel connecting India and Sri Lanka – I could not comprehend the task. The Palk Strait is a very different kind of sea. I only knew I needed to swim.

I planned to set out in the wee hours of the morning but had to delay starting. A cyclone brewing near Andaman and Nicobar Islands caused dangerous wind gusts up to 36 kilometers per hour and strong sea currents.

Finally, at 4:22 a.m., I set out from Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. I reached Dhanushkodi, India by 5:32 p.m. Throughout those many hours in the sea, escort and search and rescue vessels from the Navy and Coast Guard in both Sri Lanka and India followed close by.

Read more inspiring stories about people with disabilities from around the globe at Orato World Media.

Much to my joy, I covered a distance of 29 kilometers in 13 hours and 10 minutes. I became the youngest and fastest female swimmer in the world to cross the Palk Strait!

Girl swims as therapy for Autism but soon wins championships against older adults

My father serves as a Master Chief of Arms in the Indian Navy, so water is in my genes. His entire work culture revolves around water, and he trusts the Navy’s infrastructure. So, when my therapist diagnosed me with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Delay in Speech at two years old and recommended putting me in swimming school, my parents gave it a try.

They believed my repetitive knocking, due to my autism, could be helped through water sports as therapy. While my parents found it difficult to put me in the water at two, they did it for my benefit.

autistic girl sets world swimming records
Jiya Rai with her parents | Photo Courtesy of Madan Rai

Swimming started out difficult for me. It requires discipline and training. However, special children often have a unique skill and swimming became mine. Training required significant time and attention. We began with basic swimming therapy and eventually transitioned to open waters.

My mother left her job and devoted herself solely to supporting me and my swimming. I understand things better when I can see them visually, so we watched many videos of Australian Olympic swimmer and diver Michael Murphy. My parents researched physical training sessions and championships I could take part in.

What began as therapy became a special skill for me. I began winning medals and making my parents proud. I started competing in school championships and moved on to youth competitions in Prune. They soon declared me the fastest swimmer amongst all the participants.

Autistic girl wins multiple swimming medals, uses criticism as motivation

When I participated in the National Sea Swimming Championship in Porbandar, Gujarat, I won the gold medal for the 100-meter swim in spite of my age. While I would typically not be eligible for the competition, the organizers considered my past performances and allowed me entry. I competed with many people older than me.

I don’t understand most things when I swim, I just know I need to be ahead of the other swimmers. Understanding when to be happy or what the prize is eludes me. I only know my parents seem happy when I succeed.

Autistic medalist and world record holder Jiya Rai spends much of her time in the water | Photo courtesy of Madan Rai

So far, I have won several gold medals in swimming. It all started in 2017 with a 25-meter swim. Then I went for two kilometers in the open water. Soon, I became the fastest girl with special needs to swim 14 kilometers in the open. It took three hours, 27 minutes, and 30 seconds for me to cover the distance from Elephanta Island to the Gateway of India.

I earned a spot in the India Book of Records, Asian Book of Records, and Limca Book of Records for the youngest and first special girl in the world to achieve this milestone. Fourteen kilometers is nothing for a normal girl, but for an autistic girl, it can be difficult. In March 2021, I won three gold medals in the 20th national para-swimming championship.

Read about the ice swimmer in Argentina who crossed the Beagle Channel and carried the Olympic Torch.

I attribute my success to those who criticized me based on my autism. If I had not faced this challenge, my parents may not have worked so hard to get me to do what I do today. I know my parents are proud of me.

Currently, I train for the Paralympic Games. My father says we need to bring home the medal. I want to be the first and youngest para-swimmer in the world to swim seven oceans.

Translation Disclaimer

Translations provided by Orato World Media are intended to result in the end translated document being understandable in the end language. Although every effort is made to ensure our translations are accurate we cannot guarantee the translation will be without errors.

#GlobalCooperationNow

Pledge to be a #ConsciousCitizen today and demand #GlobalCooperationNow! by signing this petition. Sign Our Petition.

Priyanka is a multimedia journalist and a student of Counselling Psychology. She graduated in theatre studies and majored in Mass Communication and English Literature from the University of Mumbai. She is a theatre performer and also enjoys writing and narrating short fiction.