Growing up, Dattu Bhokanal never thought water and sport could be spoken of in the same breath. On Monday morning, the 24-year-old from a severely drought-hit region in Maharashtra earned India’s first rowing quota for the Rio Olympics. Bhokanal made the cut in the men’s singles sculls category after finishing second in the Asia/Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta in Chungju, South Korea.
This opens a new chapter in the Armyman’s improbable journey. Once afraid of water, he now ranks among the best in one of the toughest water sports in the world. “Water is very scarce in our village. We don’t even have water to drink. Trust me, it’s worth more than gold. How could we imagine that it could be used for sports as well?” Bhokanal says.
He comes from Talegaon, a tiny village in Chandvad taluka of Maharashtra comprising a little more than 800 families. Only last month, Namdev Gite, a resident of the village, committed suicide by consuming poison after he was unable to repay a loan because of the prevailing drought situation.
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Bhokanal says water tankers are the lifeline for his village. “I would stand in long queues for a couple of buckets every time the water tanker would come. The local authorities created a canal a few kilometres away from the village, which solved the problem to a certain extent. But it hasn’t solved the crisis yet,” Bhokanal says.
The mention of his village’s water problems makes Bhokanal forget his moment of triumph. He laments how his family and friends struggle to cope with repeated crop failures. There is a distinct drop in his voice when he mentions the drying wells. “My father dug wells to earn a living. Five years ago, he died. He led a tough life. He used to get tired. Later, he found out that he had bone cancer,” says the rower.
The death of his father saw Bhokanal, the eldest of three brothers, give up studies to earn a living. He decided to join the Army, which came as a surprise to his family and the rest of the village, where farming is the primary occupation. “I moved to Pune in April, 2012 to join the Army. I knew the steady income would be a solution to my family’s financial problems,” he says.
While training at the Bombay Engineer Group and Centre in Kirkee, the strong, six-foot-tall Bhokanal was introduced to rowing. He stood wide-eyed, unable to fathom the events unfolding in front of him when he was taken to the Army Rowing Channel. “I had never seen so much water in my life, to be honest. It petrified me. The coach at the centre, Kudrat Ali, insisted I give it a shot but I didn’t get the logic. The only thing I could think of was to take some water from the centre back home,” he says, chuckling.
He tentatively entered the boat and toppled thrice. Once he overcame the fear of drowning, Bhokanal knew he belonged there. “I didn’t know what representing India meant. My coach told me it would bring me fame, recognition and money. I knew this would be my way out of poverty,” Bhokanal says.
His rise within the Army rowing ranks was rapid after being sent to the Army Rowing Node within a year and, soon after, being sent to the national camp under coach Ismail Baig. Bhokanal continued to flourish under Baig and qualified for the 2014 Asian Games, where he finished fifth. But his biggest achievement before securing the Olympic qualification was the silver medal he won at the Asian Championships in China last year.
He was selected for the Asia/Oceania qualifiers at the expense of the more experienced Swarn Singh, who is nursing a back injury. But if the condition of his village wasn’t a distraction enough for Bhokanal, a personal tragedy added to his worries hours before he left for the qualifying event.
His mother suffered an accident in which she sustained a brain injury. “She is currently admitted to a hospital in Pune, where my younger brother stays. She is doing better now. I called her up this morning to tell her about my qualification. Hopefully, this news will help her recover more quickly,” he says.
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