The village of Talegaon Rohi is one of the most drought affected areas in Maharashtra. As per a state survey, 19 farmers and land labourers have committed suicide in the last six months, owing to unpaid debt that came along with the water crisis.
Water scarcity is at its peak, with the region missing two straight monsoon seasons in a row. However, as ironic as it may seem, India’s only Rio Olympic qualified rower, Dattu Bhokanal belongs to this region.
The 800 family strong village has been surviving on government sanctioned water tankers. Hence, the transition from experiencing drought to being the best in a sport that consumes the most amount of water has been a limitless struggle for Dattu.
Was in shock when I saw people wasting water for rowing: Dattu
First introduced to rowing via his Indian Army admission in 2012, the hawaldar has quickly climbed becomes India’s strongest Men’s sculls contender. Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, he said, “When I first came to know about rowing as a sport, I was in shock. 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.”
Due to the lack of water availability, the 24-year old self admittedly had developed a fear for it. He added, “The thing is because I never saw so many water bodies at the same time, it instilled a fear in me. Even during the Army training I used to try and ignore the water event. However, the Army teaches you how to deal with fears, that is how you are ready to give your life for India, if required.”
He added, “We used to have one tanker for one neighbourhood in our village. 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.”
From selling off land to joining the Army for consistent source of income
Having lost his father in 2011, Dattu and his family sold all their land and belongings, in order to pay off his debts. Repeated crop failures forced him to join other channels of income, to help his family financially. He said, “I never wanted to join the Army in the beginning, but I knew I had to support my family, hence I took this step.”
Dattu helped his father as a well-digger, in various villages across Nashik. Once he passed away, all the savings were used to get rid of the debt, with his tractor and majority of land being sold in the process as well.
Dattu’s, eldest brother quit his studies and started working a landless labourer as there was no constant income. His brother’s decision prompted him to join the Army. He joined Army training in Kirkee, where he first saw the sport of rowing.
With an initial reaction of fear and disgust, Dattu expressed immediate resentment towards the sport. But, the centre’s coach Kudrat Ali was impressed by his height (6 ‘4’ inches) and asked him to immediately begin training.
Dattu said, “In the beginning I showed a lot of anger and resentment, I remembered my training as well. My seniors had always told me that I should do what I fear the most, so that I overcome it.”
The first time Dattu attempted rowing, he fell thrice into the water. Having never had a swim in his life, he struggled to clutch on the boat edge, while gasping for breath. Within a span of a month, he learned how to swim, and was comfortably getting onto the boat.
In one year’s time, he was sent to the National Army rowing centre, where he met seniors such as Sawarn Singh Virk, who was representing India at that time.
The 2012 London Olympics participant said, ”During his initial days, I knew Dattu never wanted to give up. He was probably one of the last guys during races, but he didn’t give up. Every time he used to do badly, he used to ask everyone how he can better himself. His qualification is only what he deserves and I personally think, he will only get stronger with more exposure.”
Charge towards Rio Olympic qualification
By 2014, he was sent to the national rowing camp, where he met India Coach Ismail Baig. He gave Dattu the competitive experience that he required. A fifth place finish in the doubles sculls at the Asian Games, only highlighted his consistent upward growth trajectory.
The 2014 calendar year also saw Dattu win two convincing National Championship gold medals.
He added, “During my training days, Mr Inderpal Singh helped me a lot to get my basics right. That is what gave me the base 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. Coach Baig has been with me for two years now and I have been getting stronger.
Dattu achieved his marquee result last year, by winning a silver medal at the Asian Championship in China. He added, “I’m very lucky that
I can provide for my family now and they also know how I’m focused. 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. 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.”
By now, Dattu presumed that his testing times were over or so he thought. With his family now comfortable, he channelized all his focus towards Rio qualification. However, days prior to his Olympic qualifier in South Korea, Dattu’s mother met with an unfortunate accident.
The injury caused brain damage, keeping her in the Army Hospital in Pune for two weeks. He added, “She is okay now, she’s recovering. I am yet to tell her about my qualification as I don’t want her to receive any shocks, positive or negative considering her condition. Once, she is fully recovered I’ll tell her.”
A second placed Men’s singles sculls qualifier finish made Dattu only the ninth rower from India to make the Olympic cut. Speaking about his preparations he said, “Me and my team have set a plan for three months, we will be having a meeting on Thursday to decide how to take things forward. I am a target based individual, I will be looking to complete my immediate training targets first. But what I can assure is my finish will definitely be very good in Rio.”
From experiencing drought, having a severe fear of water to becoming India’s number one rower, Dattu Bhokan’s journery epitomises the Olympic spirit.Published 02 May 2016, 15:55 IST