India’s only champion rower to qualify for the Rio Olympics this year has a story that’s all about overcoming fear and not giving up in the face of challenges.
Dattu Bhokanal, 24, comes from the village of Talegaon Rohi – a drought affected area of Maharashtra which hasn’t seen enough rainfall for two monsoon seasons. It was then a matter of irony that Bhokanal made a name for himself in rowing. “We used to have one tanker for one neighbourhood in our village,” he said to SportsKeeda, “We used to line-up at six and get our water by 8 30, because there were daily fights of who wanted how much. So, watching rowing was an initial shock for me.”
But it wasn’t exactly his own choice, as much as fate pushing him into it.
In fact, when he first came to know about the sport, he resented the amount of water that was wasted.
He said, “People waste so much water, when they have access to it. It made me extremely emotional. Over time I became more used to the fact.”
Before his father’s death in 2011, he worked with him as a well-digger. But it all went downhill after his father died. Crop failures and rising debts forced him to sell off land and give away every last rupee of the family savings to clear the debt. Yet, there was a need for constant income – which made his eldest brother put an end to his studies and take up work as a landless labourer.
All of this plagued Bhokanal’s conscience. He finally decided that he would join the Army to support his family.
It was in Kirkee, where he was under training, that he first saw rowing as a sport. The centre’s coach asked him to join training for rowing, as his height – 6’4 inches – would be favourable for the sport. “The thing is, because I never saw so many water bodies at the same time, it instilled a fear in me.” He says, “In the beginning I showed a lot of anger and resentment… My seniors had always told me that I should do what I fear the most, so that I overcome it.”
And overcome he did. In a month, he learnt how to swim, lost his fear of large water bodies, and got a hang of rowing. Then, there was no looking back. After making it to the National Army Rowing Centre in 2014, he was trained by coach Ismail Baig.
He proved his mettle with a score of wins and medals the same year. He finished fifth place in the doubles sculls at the Asian Games, and won two National Championship golds.
In 2015, he earned himself a silver medal at the Asian Games in China.
He praises his Army training which helped him get his basics right and gave him the chance to grow further. “The Army helped with all my equipment and diet, and I’m happy that they had faith in me to go till the very end,” he adds, “Coach Baig has been with me for two years now and I have been getting stronger.”
But after everything, he’s glad he can now provide for his family without any worry.
“I remember that I wanted to quit rowing in 2013, because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to provide for my family,” he recalls, “Now they are here in Pune, but I know the state of my village is very bad, I hope my qualification brings happiness and water to them.”
However, days before the qualifiers for the Olympics, his mother met with an accident. She was admitted to the Army Hospital in Pune, and had suffered from brain injury. She was there for two harrowing weeks, but is now recovering, much to the relief of Bhokanal. “I am yet to tell her about my qualification,” he confides, “I don’t want her to receive any shocks, positive or negative considering her condition. Once, she is fully recovered I’ll tell her.”
Bhokanal is the ninth rower from India to make it to the Olympics.
He finished second in the men’s singles sculls in the qualifier round in South Korea. And his confidence shines through his words as he prepares for the main Olympics event. “I am a target based individual, I will be looking to complete my immediate training targets first,” he said. “But what I can assure is my finish will definitely be very good in Rio.”
From facing droughts to fearing water bodies to overcoming and achieving – Dattu Bhokanal is what we call a true winner.