When struggling with weight issues, Ng Choon Keith initially turned to swimming as a means to shed extra pounds and regain his vitality. Little did he know that his personal journey would lead him to the daunting world of open water swims and, eventually, the formidable challenge of swimming a substantial 81km along the sacred Ganges River, India.
Said to be the personification of the Goddess Ganga, the Ganges stretches approximately 2,510km, starting in the southern Himalayas and flowing through northern India via states such as Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. It plays a crucial role in the economy of the region it traverses, supporting agriculture, transport and many industries that rely on its water. But the river faces severe threats of pollution.
It is considered one of the filthiest rivers in the world due to the discharge of untreated sewage, industrial effluents and agricultural runoff, and the degradation of water quality has harmful effects on both humans and aquatic ecosystems. Despite facing these off-putting facts, Ng — who is CEO of public listed Ecobuilt Holdings Bhd — registered for the 77th Open Water Long Distance Swimming Competition held in West Bengal on Sept 3.
To some, this decision may appear audacious, even bordering on crazy, but beneath it all lies an indomitable spirit fuelled by a determination to push the boundaries of human achievement.
“It all began in June 2021 during the Movement Control Order, when I just couldn’t continue down the path of being perpetually overweight,” reflects Ng, 39, whose lifelong affinity for swimming started at age four. During his formative years, he competed actively and even earned the honour of being in the under-18 Selangor water polo team.
At that moment during the MCO, he decided to take a proactive step towards a healthier lifestyle. He embarked on a regimen that combined daily running and CrossFit workouts at home. However, this newfound fitness journey came with concerns about the strain on his knees.
Ng reignited his passion for swimming on Christmas Day that same year, subsequently embracing cycling with the ultimate aim of participating in the Ironman race. “Starting from January 2022 onwards, I learnt how to cycle and participated in my first half Ironman event in Desaru, Johor, in July. Following that, I ventured into triathlons and open water swimming, including the remarkable Perhentian 16km round-island event, which marked my first foray into long-distance swimming,” he recalls.
He completed his inaugural full Ironman competition in Busselton, Western Australia, in early December 2022. It was during this period that he began to focus more on swimming, consistently achieving podium finishes in local events. In February this year, his aspirations took a new direction after meeting Spanish swim coach Jose Luis Larrossa Chorro, a two-time champion of the Ganges River race.
“He was going for the fourth time and invited my friends and me to join the 19km category. But for us it was always ‘go big or go home’ and we chose to participate in the 81km swim. I never thought twice because our coach assured us it would be the longest swim of our lives if we completed it.”
With the challenge that lay ahead, coupled with a major concern about being complacent and going back to his old bad habits after the Ironman competitions, he figured instilling self-discipline was the solution.
The preparation allowed for flexibility. On certain days, he swam independently, while on others, he trained alongside his friends Wee-Li Chong and Mohd Zaimar Omar. He began this rigorous routine shortly after joining his current company in February, waking up at 4am and heading to PJ Palms Sports Centre’s pool before concluding his training at 6.30am.
“I followed this schedule three to four times a week. During weekends, the swims [were] stretched longer and they could last up to four hours. Per week, we averaged 35km before peaking at 45km about three weeks before the race.”
Had he heard of the Ganges? Yes. But did he know how iffy its water condition is? No. “Not until we got there and saw the murky water, but again we were assured by our coach that it’s tasteless and doesn’t smell. So, we just went for it without thinking twice,” he chuckles, remembering their “go big or go home” mantra. “Being flagged off in the pitch black water at 5am also helped. I couldn’t see a thing!”
How did he prepare mentally? “When I was doing the Ironman, I would always break down the tasks, reminding myself that it’s just a 3.8km swim, followed by a 180km bike ride and, finally, a full marathon. So, for this swim, even though it had a daunting 12.5-hour cut-off time, my coach recommended taking short breaks every 20 minutes for a quick sip of liquid diet, lasting no longer than 30 seconds.”
His friend Daniel Ang accompanied him on a bamboo raft for the entire 12-hour duration, regularly refilling Ng’s bottle and tossing it into the water before he resurfaced, all the while acting as timekeeper.
“Mentally, I knew I was going to see my friend three times each hour and that kept me going. However, when I reached the 50km mark after eight gruelling hours of swimming and with pain in my shoulders, I reached breaking point. My mind was urging my body to quit. I asked my friend for an update on the remaining distance and he informed me that there was still 30km to go.”
He paused for a minute to contemplate his next course of action and even found himself questioning what he was actually doing. Then he remembered he had already swum for eight hours. What was another 10km? “That’s how I kept pushing on until I finished the race. It wasn’t an easy swim; I remember bumping into a cloth and something furry. It really challenges your mental [fortitude].”
Ng completed the race in the 11th position, while Chong, 33, made it to the 12th position. Mohd Zaimar, a 46-year-old brand development manager, dropped out after completing 40km.
“I was in a daze after finishing the race, wandering the streets in my swim shorts like a madman, desperately searching for Daniel. None of the locals understood my enquiries. I was so relieved when I finally located him and gradually, the realisation that I had finished the race sank in.”
The swim in India didn’t come with the frills he was accustomed to at Ironman races, such as post-race refreshments and massages. The race itself was held not in any major city but spanned relatively unknown towns in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. The accommodation and transport were basic at best. The race started at Ahiron Ghat, Jangipur, and finished at Berhampore, the former capital of Bengal before the advent of the British East India Company.
He will never forget the few pre-race activities he had to attend, including being paraded around the city and receiving trophy after trophy on stage. “It was nice being celebrated like that by the organiser, with the public wanting selfies, but it did get tiring after a while.”
Surprisingly, Ng didn’t experience any health issues during the race or suffer from food poisoning throughout his stay there. “We made sure to get all the necessary vaccinations and took charcoal pills after every meal. On the train ride to the race’s starting point, we even avoided the onboard tea but had it on the way back to Calcutta.” Ironically, he suffered food poisoning during a work trip to Borneo upon his return.
Speaking of souvenirs from the race, Ng says his swim shorts were still releasing brownish residue and sand a few washes after. But luckily, he has been spared any skin rash.
“After receiving official confirmation from the organiser in India that I am indeed the first Malaysian to have completed the longest swimming competition in the world, I sent my application for an entry into the Malaysia Book of Records. And I’m happy to report that I am now in the book of achievements.” To commemorate this milestone, he donated RM3,000 to World Vision Malaysia.
“My advice to other swimmers looking to continually challenge their limits is simple: Don’t doubt yourself, strengthen your mental resolve and just go for it,” says the father of an eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
“I’m truly grateful to my wife, Janice Lew, for her unwavering support and for seeing very little of me when I was preparing for the swim. I owe this achievement to her and my entire swim crew who accompanied me in India.”
This article first appeared on Oct 9, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.