One of international rowing’s most maverick coaching figures —with a medal-count to go with his personality—begins his stint with yet another Asian population giant. The Romanian Nicolae Gioga was roped in by the Indian rowing federation and promises to prop up medals and their colour at the Asian Games.
“I’ve had one Olympic with 2 gold medals (Atlanta 1996, Romanian women’s Eight & Lightweight double sculls), and another with 3 golds (Sydney, Romania women’s encore in coxed 8 and Lt wght Sculls, plus Coxless pair). Now my ambition is to win 4 gold medals,” he says.
“2, 3, 4. Get it?” he starts grandly, before adding wickedly, “the 4 might not happen with India.” He adds realistically though, “but I’m known to deliver gold medals, and I’m going to do everything to help India get those at Asian Games next year as a start.”
“2 gold” minimum is a conservative ambition for Gioga at the outset – a step up from the 9 bronze at last Asiad. At Guangzhou in 2010, India had 1 gold, 3 silver, 1 bronze. “I think lightweight sculler Dushyant has great potential,” he says, though he is yet to completely apprise himself completely of India’s “physical capacity and technical skill” he adds.
The 66-year-old who helped end Romania’s wait for gold medals finding immense success with the women’s crew, has started identifying juniors for both the lightweight and heavyweight categories, and sees potential with the lightweights especially.
“Indians are not so poor in techniques,” says the man known for his straight-talking, no-nonsense assessments. “But one major problem I see is in their rhythm. For me the first 500m are not so important, the last 500 is my target. All my crews became gold medallists after the 800-1000 m mark. Rowing is an endurance, resistance-based sport, it’s not a speed sport,” he explains.
Gioga is known for his unconventional approach to rowing training. “I have tried the normal approach. But yes, mine is the opposite of the classic method. So I don’t believe in excessive running, weight lifting. I will focus on endurance but I’ll do it my way. More than anything, I want my rowers to understand their equation with the water and their equipment,” he says. His famed training with Romania involved taking them to the mountains and short 1 hr 50 minute focussed sessions.
He’s obsessed with balance on the boat. With a devilish glint and a shake of the hand, he adds, “Even today I get very scared if I’m on a boat that’s unbalanced.” Such things are sacrilege for his crew. Gioga comes to India on the back of an eventful career. After success with Romania at the turn of the century, he would fall out with his federation, and serve stints with China and Iran, even setting base in China. “Till now, I used to think Chinese was the best food. But I’m beginning to like Indian food. Not the spice – that’s useless, but the base,” he says.
“I’ve studied diets for rowers a lot, and come to the conclusion that veg food is ideal. I’m a big fan of veg food and prefer that to meat, because digestion of meat releases toxins that I’ve found are not good for a sport like rowing. Moreover, the protein options in veg like mushrooms are better than some meat,” he says.
He, however, has never meddled with diets of his rowers, and leaves it to the athletes and their diet specialists to decide. What China and at times Iran found unpalatable about Gioga were his whiplash statements, not shying away from calling his wards lazy if he thought that was warranted. Both countries did see some improvements in their results though.
In India, he sees a new challenge. “India’s a challenge, and my life has been full of challenges,” says the man, with a trademark Tom Selleck-like Magnum moustache. “I believe in the power of 1.3 billion to help me find the kind of rowers I can train for gold,” he says. Gioga’s own entry into rowing was by accident. A coach had been chasing a tall friend of his persuading him to take up rowing. “My first coach found me in a park. He wanted to enlist this tall boy. He asked around who’d want to join and I was the only enthusiastic one, so we started,” he recalls.
He had the grades to pursue medicine and had almost made up his mind, when his teacher would tell him, ‘II don’t see you sitting at a desk as a doctor for 6 hours.’ He was admitted quickly into physical education classes, but was disruptive as a thinker, shredding textbooks, and his instructor would conclude he wasn’t mature enough.
As coach too, he acquired the reputation of a maverick. As coach of Steaua club, he went all over Moldova knocking on doors persuading parents to send their girls to rowing classes. Romania’s biggest name in women’s rowing Doina Ignat infact had cried herself sore refusing to go to Bucharest, after Gioga knocked persistently at the house of her foster parents and told them, he was looking for dedicated athletes who won’t take a step back and would go all the way to gold medal. At the institute earlier, they were asked to mark themselves on various parametres, and Gigoa would put a 10 at most places, and 9 at the rest. “10, 10, 9, 9, 10, 10. They told me I had over-evaluated myself. The first thing I did after Romania won 2 gold medals – the country had waited several years to win gold – was go to them and ask them, ‘Do you still think I over-evaluated myself?” he says. Expect a few ripples in India now that the maverick is here.