By Sudipto Ganguly
MUMBAI (Reuters) – Indian rower Dattu Bhokanal has battled adversity to secure Olympic qualification and his journey to Rio has been made even more remarkable following a childhood bout of aquaphobia and fears for his mother’s health during his final preparations.
Hailing from a drought-hit region in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra, the daily fight for the treasured commodity led him to develop a fear of water as a youth and it was not until he joined the army in 2012, that he learned to swim.
His phobia conquered, the 25-year-old Bhokanal booked his ticket to Rio 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 in April.
Bhokanal gave up his studies to support his family after his father died of cancer in 2011 and his qualification can also be regarded as a reward for his ability to perform through another tragedy, which almost derailed his Olympic dreams.
Shortly before he was due to depart for South Korea, his mother suffered brain damage in a fall resulting in almost total amnesia.
“It was difficult for me to concentrate during the event,” Bhokanal told Reuters in an interview. “I was worried about what was happening back at home.
“Then I told myself ‘I can’t go on worrying about whatever is happening back home and must focus on the job at hand’.”
Bhokanal, the eldest of three brothers, tried to call his mother after securing qualification for the Olympics but was told she had slipped into a coma.
He rushed back to attend to her but the positive news that she had regained consciousness was soon negated by the fact she could not recognize him with doctors saying her recovery was likely to take at least six months.
“She still does not recognize me as her son,” an emotional Bhokanal said.
Standing an imposing 6 foot 4 inches (1.95 meters) tall, Bhokanal was encouraged to take up rowing in the army but his transition from land to water was far from smooth.
He initially kept toppling out of the boat and was fairly certain it was a task that did not suit him.
Undeterred, he continued to train and a fifth-place finish in the double sculls at the 2014 Asian Games convinced him he had a future in the sport. The next year, he won a silver medal in single sculls at the Asian Championships in China.
Bhokanal is confident of bringing back a medal for his country from Rio and wants to do something for his villagers, who still have little access to drinking water.
“I want to do something to solve the water crisis in my village,” he said. “I will surely do something to at least solve the problem of drinking water for my people.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)