Mermaid of India

Ariesa Mongia, India

Madhurya Sai Amirapu on October 27, 2018 in Sports

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop” - Rumi

At the ripe age of seventeen, Ariesa Mongia has created a wonderfully balanced little universe for herself and like any true universe it is slowly expanding. She has built it around the stars of compassion, discipline, determination and a strong belief in equality. This bright and dynamic girl, whose element is water and favorite move is the backstroke, is not just making big waves in national level circuits but also in social volunteer ones.

Ariesa, a national level swimmer, is the latest name in an inheritance of water. She was born into a family of swimmers and sailors who’ve had a history of making India proud. Somewhere an amphibian gene has crept into the lineage- Her maternal grandfather, K.P. Thakkar, was one of India’s first gold medalists, winning India’s first gold in diving during the First Asian Games, 1953, and is a Dhyan Chand award recipient. Her paternal grandfather Commodore Surinder Mongia sailed professionally and is an Arjuna award recipient, her father and her paternal uncle were both national level sailors and are also Arjuna awardees. Her mother was a national level diver and water polo player for many years. On reading about them, one can’t help consider the possibility of their secretly turning to mermaids and mermen at night. Despite the tremendous legacy to live up to, Ariesa has her feet anchored to the ground, a good head on her shoulders and her heart in the water.

Her mother Bharati Mongia, who as a daughter, wife and now mother of an athlete, and of course as an athlete herself, has seen it all. About Ariesa taking to the water, she says, “We come from a family of sport and definitely know its significance in one’s life and overall development from a young age, so we always insisted that she take up a sport, but that it could be any sport. Initially I wasn’t too keen on Ariesa taking up competitive swimming, because from experience I know it can be a lonely sport at times. We had her try her hand at a number of sports, but she ultimately fell in love with being in the water (see ‘fish out of water’) and swimming was chosen.”

Bharati tells us about her daughter’s grit, “Initially, Ariesa wasn’t doing too well competitively, there were always girls, including her friends who were stronger and faster in the pool and this led to a lot of disappointment and dejection for Ariesa, which was hard to watch. One day after an unsuccessful State Meet, I sat down with her and gave her the option of trying something different. I told her she was young and didn’t have to feel committed to swimming. To that she looked up and said, “Mamma, please don’t tell me how to quit, teach me how to win!”.’ Ever since then, it has been a journey of research and medically backed training, support and perseverance all which culminated in her first Under-14 National Swim Meet Medal, after which she’s made it to the Nationals every year and even went on to win 2 bronze medals with a broken elbow, which is one of her favorite swimming moments.

On one side Ariesa has swimming and on the other Jai Vakeel. When in the 7th standard, Ariesa went on a school trip to the Jai Vakeel Foundation, a defining point in her life, for that was where she found purpose and direction outside the pool and Jai Vakeel ended up finding a lifelong friend in Ariesa as well.

Jai Vakeel Foundation is the largest and oldest non-profit for intellectually disabled in the country and their approach to them is truly holistic, by providing them with a variety of support services- from aiding them in day to day activities like walking and feeding to obtaining employment. On being asked about it, Ariesa is all admiration, “The day I visited Jai Vakeel, I genuinely just fell in love with them. They are differently-abled children but despite that, if given the right support they can do whatever we do and they do it so well…despite all their challenges, they smile through the day and that really put things in perspective for me. After that, I just knew that I wanted to do something for them and that I wanted to spend time to get to know all the them. My experience with them is just wonderful and satisfying.

The greatest feeling, other than having my name and state being called on the podium when I receive a medal, is when we walk into Jai Vakeel and the kids smile at us in happy recognition. That feeling when they run up to hug us is amazing. Yes, they are different but they are also exactly the same. I want to work for their proper integration into mainstream society.

Ariesa is currently finishing up a first-of-its-kind leaflet, which encompasses vital kernels of knowledge and information for young athletes of any sport and level. She has collected all the result and research-based information that she’s acquired over the years of her professional training. The document will serve as source of valuable guidance regarding numerous facets- basic health information, specific tests athletes should undergo, supplementation tips, nutrition and medical advice, training and conditioning pointers, all in a single place.

We would not be able to the leaflet enough justice on our own and thus quote Ariesa directly from the its front cover-

To my fellow young athletes,

“You will never make it to nationals, think of putting her in another sport” – was the proclamation of a national swimming coach about me at age 10. Not only did I make it, I won several National medals over the years. I used science and hard work to achieve my dreams but those words haunt me even today because I wonder how many children are written off and made never to realise their true potential.”

This scientifically backed leaflet has been vetted by doctors, supplementation experts, and a conditioning coach from the US. Her aim is to provide important information to athletes aged 9-15 years easily and more importantly distribute it for free, especially to low access communities so that they can access this knowledge without having to shell out thousands of bucks, thereby not only raising awareness about modern athlete health and training, but also helping budding athletes who don’t otherwise have means to sports medicine research and information regarding what is really needed for them to reach their full potential. It is a leaflet encouraging athletes to never give up, but to instead work harder and smarter.

“This booklet is dedicated to my friends at Jai Vakeel, an institution for the intellectually disabled, guided by the single principle – that is it not a disability but rather a different ability. Jai Vakeel supports such children through various interventions like therapy, education and skill development. Sports and other extra-curricular activities play a big role in their overall development and well-being. I met the children of Jai Vakeel when I was 13 years old and they’ve had a profound impact on me, always positive and smiling despite their obvious challenges. They remind me that I have a moral obligation to be positive and to push past my challenges.’

The leaflet is dedicated to the children at Jai Vakeel as well as all the aspiring athletes of our country. Overall, it is her personal way of giving back to society. Ariesa Mongia, is wholly aware of the privileged background she comes from with her ample source of inspiration and support, but she also knows the importance of hard work, respect and kindness. While she was busy swimming for glory, the spirit of sportsmanship swum its way into her, which is the true beauty of any sport.

She goes on to make an appeal to the reader – “If you find the information in the booklet useful, do consider visiting jai Vakeel or simply making a small contribution. Like you the children at jai Vakeel are athletes, always in need of better equipment for sport and supportive training. Every contribution makes a difference.  As athletes we set a higher standard for ourselves each day in our sport. Let us do that in life as well and make a difference in the lives of other children.”

Ariesa has not only spent countless hours on the making and perfecting of this leaflet, but also raises the money for this charity work herself. She runs the Mumbai Standard Chartered marathon along with her best friend Sara Mehta, every year for Jai Vakeel. She also holds Facebook fundraising and awareness campaigns. Another feather in her cap, Ariesa worked immensely hard along with her swim teammates to bring to the Bombay International School Swimathon to life, an inter-school fundraising event in which each school pledged a number of laps and then raised money per lap, which was then donated to charities of the schools’ choice. The event ended up raising 22 lakhs. The proceeds from her school went to Jai Vakeel.

On being asked about her hobbies and other interests, and whether she even has time for any, Ariesa laughs and says, “Yes, I actually enjoy football and am on the school team, I like to dance for fun, bake, go MUN-ing and you know, Netflix and chill.” She’s also quite interested in photography and for Ariesa all roads seem to lead to Jai Vakeel, she and her friend ended up taking 300 black and white portraits of all the students in Jai Vakeel and sat down with them to personalize the frames. They printed it out and gifted them each their portrait.

All in all, Ariesa Mongia is a perfect balance of maturity, humility and conviction. She is a true role model for not only her age group but for all citizens. In her, flows an energy and vitality that only water has and we wish for it to bubble through forever.

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