Till five years ago, Swarn Singh had never heard of rowing. He had little knowledge about the Asian Games and a vague idea of what the Olympics was all about.
As the scullers depart for the Incheon Asian Games on Sunday night, the aptly named Swarn will be India’s best bet for a gold in a sport where they’re finally coming off age, at least at the continental level.
Swarn’s introduction to the sport was incidental. He was preparing for the Republic Day parade at the Sikh Regimental Centre in Ranchi when a senior officer asked if he would be willing to join the rowing team. “My first thought was, what is rowing?,” Swarn recalls.
But rejecting an offer made by a senior Army officer wasn’t an option for the shy, ever-obedient Swarn. Not knowing what to say, he just nodded. “I was selected only because of my height. The Army team was looking for boys above 185 cm in height. I was tall and fit, so my seniors recommended my name. Later, I was sent to Pune to join the Army rowing camp,” he says.
Swarn has no qualms admitting that he joined the Army just for money. Hailing from a tiny East Punjab village called Dalelwala in Mansa, one of the most backward districts infamous for rampant drug abuse, a career in Army promised Swarn a better life. When he joined the rest of the campers at the Army Rowing Node in 2009, Swarn’s only aim was to get a promotion. “When I was picked, I came to know that if I win a medal at the nationals, I will get a promotion. So initially, it was just the promotion that was my driving force,” Swarn says.
The coaches soon discovered that he was bestowed with enormous talent and power, which complimented his height and supreme fitness. He was summoned for the Asian Games trials in Hyderabad the following year. Not many outside the Army had seen him row till then but many had heard about the ‘wannabe rower’ who had started clocking some really quick times.
He was pitted against the country’s best rower, Bajrang Lal Takhar, and lost by a massive margin of 10 seconds. “But we noticed that he had the right technique. He needed to be nurtured,” says chief coach Ismail Baig. A year later, he returned to Ranchi for the National Games, where he won the gold in single sculls. “That medal changed my perspective. I was called to the national camp in Hyderabad and it wasn’t just about money or promotion anymore,” Swarn says.
At the national camp, Swarn became closely acquainted to Bajrang, who had acquired a legendary status with his gold at the Guangzhou Asian Games — a first in Indian rowing. Bajrang became his guide and mentor and under his, and Baig’s wings, Swarn prospered. Destiny dealt him another favourable hand the same year, and Swarn beat Bajrang in the Olympic trials at the Hussain Sagar in Hyderabad, though the legend was still recovering from typhoid. But it was just the boost that Swarn needed.
He went to the Asian qualification event and secured a spot for the London Olympics after winning the gold. In London, he qualified for the quarterfinals, which was a first. The following year, he became the Asian champion and then reached the semifinals of the world championship — another first for an Indian.
Not surprisingly, Swarn is feeling confident of winning the gold in two weeks’ time. And it is not just because of his recent run. Two of his most memorable achievements — the Asian Championship gold and semifinal appearance at the worlds — have come at Chungju International Centre, the venue for Asian Games rowing. “It feels good returning to a venue where I’ve done well in the past. In fact, it’s our favourite venue outside India. Hopefully, we’ll be able to replicate our past performances there,” Swarn says.