The scenic Chungju Tangeum Lake International Rowing centre is nearly 200km from the bustling port city of Incheon. As such, India’s scullers will be far from the bustle of the host city once the Asian Games starts. However, it’s unlikely the young Indian rowing contingent would be complaining. For them, it will be an emotional return to a venue that has been a happy hunting ground in the past. More crucially, though, they return to a setting where seven years back, a certain Dharmesh Sangwan propelled India on to the rowing map.
Sangwan, who lost his life while serving with the UN Peacekeeping Forces in South Sudan last year, won the country’s first gold medal outside India in the coxless pairs category at the Asian Championships held at the same venue in 2007. Partnering fellow Armyman Satish Joshi, he glided past the finish line in what was the fastest time (6mins, 47secs) in the continent back then, setting a national record in the process. “He’ll be terribly missed… he was our dearest rower,” chief coach Ismail Baig says. “We are returning to a venue where he won a gold medal seven years ago. Those memories will always remain with us.”
Sangwan, an Army subedar, was serving in the strife-torn region of South Sudan in December last year. Rebels from the second-largest ethnic group, the Nuer, stormed the UN base on the night of December 21 and targeted civilians of the majority Dinka ethnic community who had sought refuge there. The 32-year-old was killed in the crossfire between the two groups, eight days before his birthday. He left behind his wife and three children.
Regarded as one of the first stars of Indian rowing for his path-breaking performances at continental events and unparalleled dominance on the domestic circuit, Sangwan’s feat in Chungju seven years ago added intensity to the rapid strides India had been making in rowing.
A day after Sangwan’s memorable performance, his long-time friend and Rajputana Rifles comrade Bajrang Lal went on to win the country’s first-ever gold medal in singles sculls. “I was in the squad with him in 2007 when we travelled to Chungju. He was a very close friend, we joined the Army together, trained together and began our rowing careers at the same time. Throughout our careers, we have been together,” Bajrang says.
The 2010 Asian Games gold medallist adds: “Just a couple of days ago, I was talking to (current Asian Championship gold medallist) Swarn Singh about Dharmesh and we were talking about the gold medal he won seven years ago. The youngsters are keen to win the medal for him and better his performance.”
It is easy to gauge the respect Sangwan, who had turned coach in 2009, commanded in the Indian set-up. A huge photograph of him draped in the Tri-colour graces the team’s meditation room at their base-camp in Hyderabad.
As the rowing contingent prepares to depart for the Incheon Games, Baig hopes Sangwan’s feat at the same venue seven years ago inspires the younger lot. India has some fond memories at the venue. After the successful sojourn in 2007, Swarn had won a gold at the Olympic qualifying event two years ago and followed it up by becoming the first Indian to qualify for a World Championship semifinal in singles sculls.
Unsurprisingly, Baig, who has been, guiding the team for the last 13 years, is confident they will be able to pose a stronger challenge to rowers from China, Japan and hosts Korea. “Last time little was expected of us. But we won five medals, including a gold. The bronze in women’s category was quite exciting. I am confident of doing better this time. We are targeting two gold and about six to seven medals,” says Baig, who has guided India to more than 100 international medals. “The place isn’t new to us as we have been there three times since 2007 and always won a medal. But this time, going there is symbolic for us. We want to win the medals for Sangwan.”