Not many outside the rowing fraternity may be aware that it was an amazing story of grit and determination which saw Dattu Bhokanal brush aside the huge trauma of his mother being in a state of coma back home as he was chasing the Rio Olympics qualification mark in the FISA Asian and Oceania Olympic qualification regatta at Chung-ju in South Korea last week.
For this spirited 25-year-old, the grim battle his mother Asha Bhavana Bhokanal is waging in the ICU, was haunting him even as he tried his best to not let it deter him from achieving his dream of representing India in the Olympics.
“Yes, it is a huge thing for me, or for that matter anyone, to see a mother in such a state. But, in my heart of hearts, I thought qualification for Rio is the best gift I could have given her and that spurred me to achieve the objective,” recalls Bhokanal in an exclusive interview with Sportstar.
“It is a pity that she is not in a position to recognise anyone. We are just hoping for the best and giving off everything we have to see her back as a normal human being and I am grateful to the Army authorities especially in the Army Hospital in Pune for all the help,” said a visibly emotional, Pune-based Army rower, who happens to be the lone ranger in rowing at the Rio Olympics from India.
Bhokanal clocked 7 min, 7.49 sec in the two km course to finish in the Korean meet to make the cut for the Rio Games.
Interestingly, Bhokanal had to battle another major hurdle in his rowing journey – initially he was scared of water for he did not know how to swim back then. That was the phase when he even thought of quitting the sport too. But, after a few outings in the water and a stint in swimming, he got hooked to the sport in 2012 when he joined Bombay Engineer Group & Centre (Khadki).
The two-time gold medallist in the 2014 National Rowing Championships from Services says that he got the real confidence of dreaming big when he finished a creditable fifth in the 2014 Asian Games in China. “That was the time when I set my eyes on Rio Olympics,” he says.
A silver medallist in the Asian Rowing championship in men’s singles sculls, Bhokanal, born to a stone-crushing labourer in a Talegaon near Pune, says he was into double sculls initially but because of the injury woes to his partner Om Prakash he had to switch over to single sculls. “And, I have no regrets and I am enjoying with the way things are going for me,” he says even as he recalls his first coach Kusrat Ali’s contribution to his rowing career which started only four years ago.
Reflecting on the prospects in the Rio Games, a confident Bhokanal reminds that he has to clock around 6 min 30 seconds to be in the reckoning which he insists he can achieve through the next couple of months training. “There is no final word yet about any training abroad. That is for the Federation to decide. But, on my part, I am determined to be in the best shape for the Games for it is a life-time opportunity to represent the country in Olympics,” says the spirited Bhokanal.
“Yes, I owe a lot to my coach Ismail sir (Dronacharya and chief national rowing coach Ismail Baig). The best part of his job is he takes care of the nitty-gritty of each rower in the national camp including diet, recovery phase and quite naturally improvement of skills. He makes all the rowers very comfortable during training,” Bhokanal said.
Will there be pressure, being the lone competitor in rowing from India? “I don’t think along those lines. In fact, I deem it is a privilege, a huge challenge and a big opportunity to bring laurels to my country,” says the star rower.
Interestingly, Bhokanal is interested neither in any other sport nor even in movies. “Whenever I find time, I love to spend with my family members and friends,” he pointed out.
For his part, national coach Ismail Baig says that what makes Bhokanal special is his willingness to slog that extra hour during training. “He never complains of workload, a very gritty customer and abundance of natural talent. He can be the major surprise from India in Rio,” he remarked.