Published: 09th December 2020
How Dr Rohini Rau conquered everything from Medicine to competitive sailing to motherhood
International sailing champion and professional doctor, Rohini Rau, shares her secret to balancing careers and why she decided to make a comeback
When she wasn’t busy saving lives as a senior resident doctor at Kauvery Hospital in Chennai, Rohini Rau was breaking records in the world of competitive sailing. And that’s not all she does — add hospital clown, theatre artiste, humanitarian and public speaker to the list and you have a résumé that anyone would envy. Last year, the 34-year-old set sail again after a 7-year hiatus from the sport. And while she was preparing for another year of breaking records, 2020 gifted her yet another credential: she became a brand new mom!
We speak to Rohini about how she juggled everything from studying in a government medical college to following every passion relentlessly and how her life has changed in the past year. Excerpts:
1. Let’s go back a few years to when you started out. How were you able to balance sports and medicine when you were a student?
I don't think balancing the two was difficult at the time. I just knew that I wanted to do both. For me, there was no question of choosing one or the other. But such decisions come with consequences. It took me almost three-and-a-half years longer to finish my MBBS because of the fact that I was constantly preparing for and participating in competitions and international events. Everything is a little harder when you want the best of both worlds. I probably had to sit through more classes than all of my classmates. But thankfully, I didn’t fail a single exam.
I was a hosteller for the first year of my course in Chengalpattu Medical College. During this time, I had a hard time maintaining my nutrition and fitness. But it got easier the next year when I decided to be a day-scholar. Simply put, I just studied when my body was tired and I would work out when my mind was tired.
SAFE TRAVELS: Rohini travelled to Angola as a health researcher for a survey conducted by the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project
2. Tell us about your journey in sailing.
I started sailing at the age of 10 at the Royal Madras Yacht Club. And when I started competing, I realised that it is a sport mostly dominated by people in the army and navy. I had to compete against these men since the age of 18! Whenever I would ask anyone working with me for support, they would tell me that I had enough competition in India and didn’t need to compete internationally. I decided to take it in my stride and three years later, I tied for third place in the Senior National Championship among men and that’s when they started to take me seriously.
In 2012, I was able to make it into the Olympics trials but I unfortunately lost by one spot. That was another horrible experience where I was the only Indian athlete and I went unrecognised. But I came back determined to finish my medical degree and I did just that by writing all my exams in one-and-a-half years. In the 7 years since, I had not sailed a boat at all. Mentally, I was just not able to motivate myself. But it all changed last year.
3. Why did you decide to come back after all these years?
You could say that I wanted to rub the the people in charge the wrong way! (laughs) Last year, my Sailing Club Commodore, Vivek Shanbhag, from the Royal Madras Yacht Club offered me the opportunity to form an all women’s league because he was familiar with my work. Although I hadn't sailed for so long, I was already fit, so it was easy to get back on track. And as for practicing, I spent almost a year to make sure I'd be ready for it. We raised the money to participate in the competition through a crowdfunding initiative.
There were 6 of us and we were actually the first group of women to represent India in this capacity when we flew to Spain to compete in the J80 World Sailing Championship in August last year. In the end, we were placed fourth in the competition. In my team, there was another mom, two others who were preparing for their tenth board exams and a swimmer! From this whole experience, what I personally learnt is that once you're a sailer, you can't really get that out of your system.
SAIL'S UP: After 7 years, she came back into competitive sailing as part of an all-women's team at the J80 World Sailing Championship held in Spain
4. What is it about sailing that made you want to come back to it?
I think sailing is a great example of an essential sport. From the age of 10, I was put in a boat which was the size of a bathtub and it’s just you in the boat in the middle of the ocean. The kind of independence that gives you at such a young age is just incredible. I mean, you don't even get to drive a car but you get to sail your own boat. It is also so close to nature. I don't have a motor or anything on my boat, it’s purely the wind and the water that helps propel you forward. Also, it’s not just physical fitness that helps you succeed, it’s got a lot to do with intellect and experience like knowing the tides and direction of the wind. I’d call it a game of chess with a lot of physical activity. And I guess winning is also addictive, once I got a taste of that, I just couldn’t stop!
5. Did giving birth change your plans for the year at all? How did you work your way around such a major change?
I was supposed to continue and go for more competitions this year, which was when I found out that I was pregnant. And I feel like everything else just made sense. As it turns out, I couldn’t have participated in any of these events anyway because of the pandemic. And to be honest, I haven’t really taken a real break in so many years and this was one thing that forced me to slow down. I guess I couldn’t have timed it in a better way. Once I am able to, I am just plain excited to get back out there and try an exciting new set of things!