Rowing to Rio: Olympic dream from a drought-hit India village

Dattu Bhokanal rowing

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Dattu Bhokanal joined the Indian army in 2012

Dattu Bhokanal has become the only Indian rower to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. BBC Hindi’s Vidit Mehra speaks to him about his journey from a drought-hit village to one of the world’s most-awaited sporting spectacles.

Bhokanal qualified last month after winning a silver medal in the men’s single sculls event at the Asian and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta at Chung-ju in South Korea.

But there was little time to celebrate because he had to quickly return home to see his ailing mother.

“After coming back from South Korea, I went to the hospital to share my achievement with my mother but she didn’t recognise me because of her illness,” he said.

But Bhokanal is upbeat about not letting his family problems come in the way of fulfilling his sporting dreams.

“I will continue to work hard to win a medal for my country in Rio,” he said.

Tough childhood

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Dattu Bhokanal wants to win an Olympic medal for India

Bhokanal, 24, comes from the drought-hit region of Talegaon in the western state of Maharashtra.

The region has seen several droughts in the past few years, making the lives of the farming community tough.

The rower’s family is one of them.

He used to help his father in farming and also in digging wells, which is a much sought after skill in the drought-hit region.

“My family’s financial condition was poor when I was studying in primary school and that’s when I began helping my father,” he told the BBC.

The father-son duo worked hard to provide for the family of five.

But his father passed away in 2011, forcing him to look for employment outside his village.

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He won two gold medals at India’s National Games in 2014

Bhokanal started working at a petrol station, earning around 5,000 rupees (£50; $75) per month.

Working at the petrol station changed the course of his life because he regularly met young men who were trying to join the Indian army.

“I felt inspired and started dreaming of joining the army too,” he said.

And his wish came true the following year when he was selected to join the army.

‘Scared of water’

Some of his seniors there advised him to try rowing because of his height at 6ft 4in (1.93m).

“But I never wanted to be a rower because I was scared of water and didn’t know how to swim. In fact, I saw the first water body in my life inside the army camp in the western city of Pune,” he said.

He still vividly remembers his first training session.

“The boat toppled several times and the safety crew kept putting me back in the boat. I told myself that rowing was not my cup of tea,” he said.

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Dattu Bhokanal believes that his win in South Korea is just a start

Progress was slow and after three gruelling months of practice, he learnt how to paddle the boat.

“It took me one year to become a rower,” he said.

But soon, he began enjoying the sport.

“I was initially scared but slowly and gradually I came close to water and felt that there was a connection and it was very strong,” he said.

In his first major tournament, he won two gold medals in India’s National Games in 2014.

The rower now wants to do well and win an Olympic medal for his country in Rio.

But that’s not his only wish.

“If I had one last wish, I would ask for water in my village.”

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