Before he left for Rio, Dattu Bhokanal was worrying if his mother would ever identify him. She was in coma after clots had developed in her brains following an accident. The doctors at the Command hospital in Pune said her brain was 95 percent damaged. Dattu hoped to make her mother happy with his exploits at Rio if she ‘somehow understands’ the journey he was about to embark on.
As it turns out, not just his mother, the entire world now identifies the rower. A rower from drought-affected region in Maharashtra was just a perfect Olympic story. And Bhokanal ensured he wasn’t just a feel-good story at the Games as he came up with a rather impressive performance on the day’s first event.
Dattu entered the quarterfinals of the men’s single sculls after finishing third in his qualifying round on Saturday. In the first heat of the day, the Armyman finished the 2000m race with a timing of 7:21.67s behind Angel Fournier Rodriguez of Cuba (7:06.89s) and Mexico’s Juan Carlos Cabrera (7:08.27s).
Dattu was in second place for the first 500 metres of the race but started to lag behind once the Mexican in lane 2 picked up the pace around the 700 metres mark.
The well built Cuban and the Mexican then increased their lead from the rest but Dattu maintained his third position although he was more than 13 seconds behind the second placed Cabrera.
Dattu qualified for the Games with a silver medal finish in the Asia-Oceania qualifier, was far behind his personal best mark of
7:07.63s but will be hopeful of improving on his Saturday’s performance during the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
But Dattu’s journey to Rio has been far from smooth. Dattu grew up in Maharashtra’s Talegaon Rohi, a village that is perennially drought prone. His father, a well digger, died in 2011 and that was when Dattu decided to earn a stable living. In December 2011, he went for Army’s open recruitment drive and the 6’3’’ boy breezed through all the physical tests. By March the following year, he was an armyman, and the same year he’d hear of Swarn Singh, another army rower who’d impressed at the Olympics in London.
Growing in stature
As his stature grew in domestic rowing, Dattu suffered multiple injuries. His career looked to be heading south-wards a few months ago when he was discovered with a herniated disc, an over-use injury pushed him out of the national camp, and he was on his way to being shipped back to his unit, far away from competitive rowing.
He returned, half cured, and caught coach Paul Mokha’s eye with his smooth stroking that could be seen from a mile. Mokha sent his medical reports to experts in the US, got his wife who works with athletes’ rehab and conditioning to chalk out a programme, and get Dattu back in the boat. First few months were 20km runs, nothing near the water, just to strengthen his back.
For his support during the toughest days of his career, Dattu decided to take Mokha along for the Olympics, a decision that did not go down too well with the Rowing Federation of India. But Dattu couldn’t care less.
At 79kg, he is lighter among heavyweights, and might not match up with the superior strength that powers forth top scullers – good leg push and sturdy quad muscles. Heaped upon that is the relative experience of the top rowers of the world – over a decade, as against Dattu’s three years.
On Saturday, as he pushed himself in the Rio waters, Dattu looked anything but out of place. Scavenging for water four years ago, Dattu was today the toast of the world in one of the toughest water sports at the Games.