There’s a new kid in town

Swarn Singh Virk out-rowed senior pros to earn an Olympic berth in the single sculls event

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Published: July 5, 2012 1:37:59 am

The pristine Dorney Lake near Windsor,around Eton College hosts rowing at the 2012 Olympics. The setting’s posh; Eton’s the No 1 public school in the world. British premier David Cameron went to Eton — the 19th such PM. Waters there are serene,the air is fresh. Clean air’s elemental to rowers,who take in oxygen-litres by truckloads over the course of a single race,burning 6000 calories.

Heading to London,India’s single sculler Swarn Singh Virk will simply be pleased to row his shell over those hallowed Dorney waters,to breathe in the unsullied air.

For the strapping 23-year-old comes from Mansa in Punjab,a town tainted by severe sewage problems and notorious levels of water pollution. Like refineries and factories that debase Mansa’s waters,Swarn’s training base at Hyderabad — the Hussain Sagar lake gets its thick layer of garbage lining its shore and a repelling stench over the water thanks to the Kukatpally nala and its industrial effluents.

India’s single sculls entrant won an Olympic trial on these very waters against Bajrang Lal Takhar,himself a seasoned armyman and Beijing Olympian who hails from remote Rajasthan suffering from long shortages of water. Typhoid felled Bajrang’s hopes of qualifying a second time,as he turned up for the trials earlier this year still weak and recovering. He repeatedly insists that the poor result wasn’t because of rowing on sullied waters. Dorney,then,can only mean an oasis of pure H2O on which Swarn will try to make his boat fly.

For,the youngster will be more than content to make the B-finals with Indian rowers far from talking medals. Swarn is 6’1”,grazes 80 kg,and the constant refrain is that India’s heavies measure up only as lightweights against westerners — notably New Zealander Mahe Drysdale — a 6’6” giant,with his oaring arms crafted as if by a blacksmith. Swarn is easily 10 kgs adrift of the lighter scullers.

Yet,the Punjab lad has hammered up an India record of 6 mins 14 seconds on the ergometre — that punishing machine which simulates rowing action on land,for a 2,000 m course. He topped the qualification in Korea beating the fancied Chinese and Iranians. And barely three years after starting out on the shell,and in only his fifth international race,clinched an Olympic berth,clocking timings that fetched Bajrang Lal Takhar the Asian Games gold in 2010.

A boy from a poor family in undeveloped Mansa,who joined the military fascinated by the boom of army-trucks,he is now India’s premier singles sculler.

“Little education,poverty brought him into the army. His decent height saw him packed off for rowing,” says national coach Ismail Baig,who himself had escaped rigours of army-boxing and happily accepted rowing offered thanks to his six-foot-plus frame.

Embarrassing start

Swarn has done well to notch 32 strokes per minute — on par with international averages. It had started with a flip in his first trials — an embarrassing capsize in Hussain Sagar when he couldn’t stop his shirt from being hooked clumsily to the oars,even as Iranian prodigy,twice U-23 world champ and now heavy sculler Mohsen Shadi Naghadeh,made him look like a novice — which was essentially what he had been. Next big race: Swarn lost by 10-12 boat lengths to Bajrang.

When typhoid struck,Bajrang knew his London ambitions were a goner. “Swarn will have to learn racing against Europeans. He’s confused at the starts. He should look only for rhythm,instead of focussing madly on power. He’s mentally strong,almost fearless. But all the power and strength can be useless if the mind is not applied,” he says.

Hyderabad’s windy conditions,choppy waters in June should make racing in the calm Dorney waters a tad easier. Punjab once boasted of rowing on the Sukhna Lake,which has since dried,though it gave India one of its canniest doubles rowers Manjeet Singh who heads to London stroking the lightweight sculls with Sandeep Kumar.

Centenarian idol

Yet,it is the distant Punjabi — celebrated British centenarian marathoner Fauja Singh who inspires Swarn.

“He’s my hero. If he can achieve the impossible at 100,why can’t I we?” Swarn says. “Bajrang is like the Sachin (Tendulkar) of rowing. I want to learn how he starts,and preserves energy,” says the sculler,whose last bursts drew praise from many foreign coaches at Slovenia Worlds,where he finished a respectable 17th in a field of 35 last year.

It was his finish-spurt in fact that clinched qualification dramatically against the rival Iranian: Mohsen Shadi.

“He led for the first 1500 metres and then I caught up. I started the sprint in the last 250-300 metres. He was stunned,and was finished!” Swarn recounts gleefully of his most satisfying race when he rowed through (a bragging term for passing to win). As such,Swarn is far different from the global rowing crowd — coming from Boston,Philadelphia,and Ivy league boathouses and academics of Harvard,Yale,Eton and Cambridge. Swarn is barely educated,watches Punjabi movies in bleak army dorms.

He might not end up being the barn burner of rowing at London,but Dorney will be liberating for a youngster who likes nothing more than brandishing his raw lung-power.

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