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The story of Sawarn Singh Virk: How the Army gave India its ace rowing performer

EXPERT COLUMNIST
Modified 01 Jul 2015, 21:56 IST
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Sawarn Singh Virk participating at the 2012 London Olympics

In 2009, Sawarn Singh Virk from Punjab didn’t even know about the existence of rowing as a sport in India. However, within a span of just three years, the Indian Army’s Naib Subedar would go on to become one of the finest rowers to have blessed India’s sporting landscape.

After his gold medal at the 2011 National Games in Jharkhand in the Men’s Singles Sculls event, the 25-year old highlighted his adaptive talent. Within a year of his marquee domestic feat, Virk created history for India.

A convincing victory at the FISA Olympic Continental qualification event in China saw him reach the 2012 London Olympics in style. Virk went on to finish 16th at the grand event, thus highlighting India’s representation in world rowing’s biggest stage of them all.

“Haven’t looked back since taking up rowing”

Virk’s stark upward growth trajectory reflects a growing problem within sports in India. A lack of exposure at a young age is causing athletes to fall behind their international rivals, later on in their career. He said, “I only started rowing at the age of 18, after joining the Indian Army. Back home in Punjab, I used to play a lot of Kabaddi and Volleyball, but had no idea about rowing.”

Apart from his Olympic qualification, Virk is considered one of the finest rowers from the continent. A gold medal at the Asian Championship in 2013 was backed by an Asian Games bronze medal last year. He credited his height for introduction to the sport, adding, “It was thanks to my height (188 cm), that I got a call up from the Army in rowing. As soon as I took up the sport, my interest grew and I haven’t looked back since.”

At the age of 18, which most sportspersons consider as their formative growth years, Virk was single-handedly trying to gain lost ground against the international community. His efforts resulted in resounding success, in a sport, which has not been associated with the Indian sporting mind-space.

He said, “The number of rowers are equal to the number of clubs that are there in China. The main problem is that once rowers pick up the sport at a young age, they are forced to quit because of parental pressure on education. There is no emphasis on sustainability of doing both.

“Even for me I had to reach the age of 18 to even know that a sport like rowing existed.”

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Sawarn Singh rowing India
Sawarn Singh (R) won the bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games in men’s single sculls

Promising rowers have to leave the sport due to lack of funds

Due to the expensive nature of the equipment, the sport has now been restricted to the upper middle class of the country. The cost of an average rowing kit is close to Rs. 5-6 lakhs, hence it’s not easily accessible to the lower and lower middle class.

Virk revealed a stark reality in India. He said, “The lower middle-class participants from states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana are the ones who show the most amount of prowess for the game. However, due to lack of accessibility, they end up leaving the sport.”

It is thanks to the Indian Army that the country has managed to garner 15 medals at the continental level. Singh, along with Bajrang Lal Takhar, has been the flag-bearer for the sport. Takhar, a veteran from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been felicitated with both the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri Award. Takhar also won the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games Men’s Sculls event in Guangzhou, to garner India’s first international medal in rowing.

Virk said, “We have five centres across the country, every year there is a championship among these five centres to decide who is the best. Generally, the best rowers come from this event, apart from the National Championship, which includes all the states.”

He added, “The problem is – we don’t teach rowing at a school and college level. Yes, some places like Bengal do have clubs, but not every state has those provisions. For us to compete with the likes of China, we need to start competing at the youth level like we do in cricket.

“The Army is doing a fine job in letting India know about rowing’s existence, but areas such as Punjab don’t even know about the sport. It will give the youth direction.”

Virk, India’s strongest bet for rowing at the 2016 Rio Olympics is currently nursing a back injury, which has kept him out for three months now. However, he hopes keep the country’s flag flying high with every stroke.

Published 23 Jun 2015, 21:34 IST
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