Madhu Nagaraja is an open water swimmer, adventurer, entrepreneur, and technology leader. His marathon swims have taken him across the English Channel, Lake Ontario, and the Strait of Magellan.
Born in India, Madhu liked swinging off banyan trees into his local waters as a child. Later in his youth, he and his friends would ride bikes on the storm pipes, often ending up falling in the water. Although Madhu didn’t know how to swim at the time, water always played a huge role in his life. He grew up reading about explorers and adventures on the open water.
It wasn’t long before Madhu learned to swim, waking up at three o’clock in the morning to go to the pool. By age 15, he had mastered different strokes and the science behind them.
Madhu didn’t begin swimming in open water, however, until later in life, after he joined a masters swim team in Palo Alto, training alongside with elite NCAA swimmers and olympic athletes. He was immediately drawn to the social nature of open water swimming.
Madhu’s first open water swim was on May 6, 2003—the first open water swim of the season in California—a one mile loop of Spring Lake.
Shortly after registering for the swim, Madhu began to second-guess his courage in the task ahead. He convinced some of his friends to join him, knowing he would feel braver surrounded by those he was close to.
The anxious swimmers woke up at 4:00 am. The water hovered around 60°F. The lake was filled with weeds. This was no swimming pool.
Despite, by his own admission, freaking out every time the weeds touched him, Madhu finished in the top three. During the car ride home, Madhu and his friends were already talking about where and when they would go on their next open water excursion.
“Racking up mileage in the pool was fun,” says Madhu, “but open water swimming is magical.” He loves the element of adventure and uncertainty—not to mention the beauty of wild waters.
With every stroke, he is unsure of what’s in store, whether he’s swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Ontario or the strong currents of San Francisco Bay. But that moment when he raises his head from the water to take in the natural splendor makes it all worth it.
Madhu increasingly enjoyed group dynamics of open water swimming. Finding like-minded people who longed for adventure brought a new dimension to his passion. He lights up when he speaks of the camaraderie and spirit of fellowship in the open water swimming community. He knows that when you’re in a tough situation in the water, a great team can get you across the lake.
At the same time, he adored the solitary aspects of his swims. Open water swimming has helped him realize the value of silence.
“As you spend longer times in the water you notice you get to spend a lot of time with yourself and figure out things. You reason through conflicts and debate with yourself.”
Madhu’s mantra for both life and open water swimming is: Everything is temporary. No matter the adversity facing you, take it one step at a time and things will get better.
Madhu takes an exploratory approach to his swimming adventures. For him, it’s not just about seeing how many prestigious swims he can complete and getting his name on a plaque. (That said, he has crossed the English Channel, Lake Ontario, and the Strait of Magellan.)
Though he feels proud of every swim that he’s done and the challenges he’s overcome on each one, Madhu’s favourite type of swims occur at sunrise. Madhu enjoys swimming first thing in the morning, when the world is still asleep. There’s something enchanting about the stillness, the tranquility, and the slow ascent of the sun.
Madhu’s crossing of Lake Ontario is also dear to his heart, because of how it brought the community together. With 8-10,000 people following the swim on Facebook, Madhu was inspiring people from all over the place to consider open water swimming.
Instead of finishing his route in Toronto, the traditional route for Lake Ontario crossings, Madhu stepped out of the water at Oakville, because that’s where his friends and family were.
The swim itself was gruelling—an estimated 15-18 hours in the water. Due to a storm that stuck around for three and a half hours longer than it was supposed to, Madhu only made it 11 kilometers in the first 9 hours. He recalls, “It was like swimming in a washing machine. The lake has a mind of its own.”
When the waves swell, rain pours, and the wind blows, thousands of reasons to get out of the water float around in the mind of an open water swimmer. But that’s the beauty of having a good team. They encourage you to reach your goal when things get difficult. Madhu remembers his friend Alex would say “Hey, keep going.” And it worked.
“You don’t have to be an expert to take care of the environment.” Madhu says. “Respecting the environment is common sense.” Madhu gives the waterbodies he loves a voice.
Madhu believes he has a responsibility to safeguard the waters he feels he belongs to. That’s why he’s an Arc’teryx adventure athlete, as well as the co-founder of Great Lakes Trust, a collective of adventurers, artists, and scientists that oversee a charitable endowment for addressing water issues in the Great Lakes by providing small grants, and GLOW Adventures. Through PointChain, Madhu works with the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) to tackle sustainability issues in cross-disciplinary teams.
Madhu is also an Ambassador for Swim Drink Fish, the charity behind Swim Guide. In his role as a Swim Drink Fish Ambassador, Madhu raises awareness about issues associated with water and talks to people about how they can help. He notes that most issues aren’t actually coming from IN the water. They’re coming from our actions outside the water—the way we do things, the things that we use—all affects the water.
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