Swapneel Chouhan often trains alone, half by temperament, half by circumstance. He’s a rising star in the nascent triathlon world of India, but extended injuries have kept him closer to a computer than a competition. Yet his recovery has fueled a worldwide platform for the multisport community.
"It was all over the news,” Chouhan said of his introduction to triathlon. Milind Soman, a model and actor well-known in India, had completed the 2015 Ironman Zurich Switzerland race in
“I biked and ran, but just for fun,” Chouhan said. “I thought I could add the swim and see what happened. I was really bad at swimming, much worse than I thought I would be.”
As the captain of his school’s cricket team, he recognized a lack of competence, so he found a coach online. The digital distance meant Chouhan could train in earnest and cut the stressful aspects of athletics.
“I am fully an introvert,” he said. “With cricket, we had to be with people. With running and triathlon, I just had to get out the front door. It felt a lot more simple. I saw huge improvements that made me want to get into it and see how far I could go with it.”
Triathlon ranks as an emerging sport in India, a country with one-third the land area of the United States but with four times the population. Yet the lack of world-class competition hardly diminishes Chouhan’s success. He won his age-group and finished third overall in a 2016 event, his first official entry. Then he raced India’s 2017 National Triathlon / Aquathlon Championship. Chouhan documented his training and his stories with 15,000-plus Instagram followers, a squad assembled on his own terms at a comfortable separation.
“Triathlon is a perfect sport for me. You are alone out there, but at the same time there is this amazing team and community out there around you.”
Social media and travel instilled lessons about the global extent of the multisport community, particularly when the now-20 year old first left home and his family support structure in Bangalore to study in Melbourne, Australia, a much more vibrant destination for the swim-bike-run crowd.
However, Chouhan didn’t understand that athletes construct their self-identity the same way they train their muscles.
Both atrophy when sweat evaporates into memories.
Chouhan’s sprint to a status of junior national-level triathlete slowed to a stop because of vague injuries.
“That’s been the problem,” he said of the last year and a half. “No one’s been able to tell me what it is. The trouble is in my lower back and hips. I’ve been doing all the rehab, but it’s just not going away. All the scans and blood tests are clean so far.”
He kept sharing the difficulties on Instagram, his network to a world he’d quickly entered and as quickly been sidelined.
“I've been feeling pretty lost as a person,” Chouhan wrote in one Instagram post. And in another: “The physical discomfort is bearable, the day-in-day-out recovery grind is fine, but it's that missing piece that hurts.”
His followers pinged him with words of encouragement or stories of similar situations they’d conquered. He read a Humans of New York entry around the same time.
“That’s when it clicked. I’m not a photographer or a traveler, but I thought I could do it by asking people to submit stories themselves. I checked if the Instagram handle was taken. It was available, and I got to work.”
Chouhan launched @humansoftriathlon
in January 2018, and the following has almost surpassed his personal account. He corrects grammar and edits pictures for a consistent visual style of super-saturated colors and edges so hard they glow. Updates appear almost every day, and the backlog could carry Chouhan into next year at the current rate. Stories bounce from losing weight to handling grief to finding friends — in short, the human experience braided with the progression of swim, bike, run.
His role as curator has also helped Chouhan weave the sport back into his life.
“I felt like even though it was virtual, it was a great way to still be immersed in the community. That’s really important, especially for recovering athletes — still seeing yourself as an athlete.”
That truth and the daily celebration of athletes has resonated around the multisport world. Binary picture-text combos have spilled into audio because so many people asked questions after each new @humansoftriathlon
“We had to do some longer version of it,” Chouhan said. “Honestly, I was totally freaked out about it. Speaking and conversation isn’t exactly one of my strong suits, but I took on the challenge.”
Podcast cohosts in the U.S. and U.K. have allowed him to disperse both the uncertainty and the work. Chouhan himself is still navigating rehab, but one thing hasn’t changed with the added entrepreneurial duties. High school friends used to call him crazy for waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. to squeeze in workouts before a rigorous course load. Now he starts early to coordinate podcast episodes.
“Whatever I do, I try to do it the best I can,” he said. "Otherwise I don’t do it.”