At the age of 15, after not winning any medals for four years, I started making my way back to the podium at the national level. As I began to show greater promise, I was plucked out of my laid-back Shivaji Park pool and brought in to train at the posh Otter’s Club in Bandra, where the best of the Maharashtra swimmers trained, under a coach far more professional than Percy Hakim. If I had believed Coach Hakim’s coaching was brutal, things were about to get far, far worse, and at very many levels.

For one, everything about the boys I had trained with in Shivaji Park – their accents, clothes, concerns, lifestyles, the amount of money they had, how they spent their time – was different from the Bandra set I was now hobnobbing with. I had only crossed the Mahim Creek, but I might as well have landed on an alien planet. In Antonio da Silva, when I had first arrived, I had been the posh “English” boy from London; now, I was its polar opposite – the Marathi boy from the boonies.

At home, gentle murmurs of disapproval were beginning to surface about how much time I was devoting to swimming. I had just finished Grade 10, and my paternal grandfather thought it was time I quit the intensive training and focused on my academics. His concerns were understandable – I came from a family of professionals. From my grandparents downwards, even the women had degrees in medicine or science. Plus, I was that rare thing in my family – a boy. There was no such thing then as a ‘career in sport’ as there is now – it was all far too risky. More importantly, with the New Delhi Asian Games less than two years away, training was bound to get more stringent, especially if I got picked for the national camp. The Games were scheduled for November 1982, mere months before I sat my Grade 12 boards.

I understood the concern, but was very, very reluctant to give it all up just when all those years of hard work were beginning to bear fruit. Luckily, my parents themselves did not insist that I give up just yet. Baba was very proud of my sporting achievements, and Aai was happy to support me in whatever I wanted to do. But Baba and I did not have the best relationship otherwise – he was opinionated, often angry (mostly at his own bad health, which he took out on people around him), and had allowed himself to get bitter and resentful. As a hot-headed teenager, my responses to him weren’t always the most calibrated, leading to a tense atmosphere at home.

Against this background, it was more swimming, not less, that I saw as my refuge. Swimming allowed me to stay out of the house – and the arguments – for several hours a day, especially with the added commute to and from Bandra. At the end of each day, I tumbled into bed, and instantly fell into deep, dreamless sleep, completely exhausted – there was not even enough energy left to sustain a sulk, let alone full-blown anger.

This is one of the great benefits of physical exercise. Any low-grade emotional or mental stress that we are carrying – and we are all carrying some measure of both on most days – can be whittled down and purged through the body by the simple expedient of putting it through some curated stress. Exert your body, in other words, to calm your mind.

I did not make the cut for the 1982 Asian Games, but I was among the hopefuls picked for the national camp. For the first time, we had a foreign coach looking into our training. Through the techniques he taught us, I learnt how to streamline my stroke and be faster in the water. A year after the Asian Games, at the age of 18, I was crowned National Open Men’s Champion in the 100-metre breaststroke. At long last, I was, in my favourite category, the fastest Indian in the water. I would defend my title successfully for the next four years, breaking personal and national records consistently, and easily qualifying for the 1986 Asian Games.

By this time, everyone at home had made peace with my decision to keep swimming, especially after I met them halfway by enrolling in a diploma course in electrical engineering. I was free to focus fully on the Asian Games, and I did, swimming 12 kilometres every single day for two years.

Such consistent, specific exercise over years and years, emphasising the use of certain muscles over others, and supported by the kind of lung power required by swimmers, sculpts a body in a very specific way. Long-distance runners have a silhouette very different from sprinters, the body of a champion wrestler looks nothing like that of a tae kwon do master. By the time I arrived at the national training camp for the 1986 Asian Games, over ten years after I had first begun to swim, I was a full 6 feet of perfect “swimmer’s body” – shaped like a V from my broad shoulders to my narrow hips. My body at 20 did not look anything like today’s aesthetic ideal – a “gym body”. with bulging biceps and six-pack abs (such a body, by the way, is no indicator of its occupant’s fitness) – but by God, it was in the best possible shape for doing what it had been trained to do.

I must clarify here that Indian swimmers then had zero chance of winning anything at the Asian Games. We are still to break that barrier – even at the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, no Indian swimmer managed to make it to the podium. But the Australian coach at the national camp leading up to the 1986 Asiad took one look at my physique and said, simply, ‘We can do something with this.’ I was elated. By some trick of nature or nurture, my body had shaped itself into something that had the potential to be even better than it was at what it had trained for.

When people ask me for tips on staying fit, I tell them that it isn’t how many reps of a particular routine you do, what time you wake up, how much time you spend in the gym, what you eat or how much water you drink that help you stay fit and healthy; the only shortcut to fitness is consistency. It is about doing something active, every single day, over and over, until it becomes a habit you cannot break.

Excerpted with permission from Keep Moving: Lessons on Staying Young in Mind and Body from India’s Fittest Family, Milind Soman, Ankita Konwar, Usha Soman, and Roopa Pai, Juggernaut.