When Indian rowers brought back three medals (1 gold, 2 bronze) from the Asian Games in Jakarta, there were plenty of speculations around the future of former foreign coach Nicolae Gioga. After the Romanian left, the Rowing Federation of India (RFI) decided to not hire any foreign coaches. In the meantime, national coach Ismail Baig was given the responsibility to take care of the seniors.
The Dronacharya awardee coach guided the team in the Asian Rowing Championships in Cheongju (South Korea) last year, where the Indian won one gold, two silver and two bronze medals. Under the aegis of this 54-year-old coach, India won as many as 156 international medals, including two Asian Games gold, ever since he took over as Indian coach in 1999.
Baig, who has trained many Asiad and Asian medallists at Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad for close to two decades, claims "I accidentally became a coach at the age of 26," in an exclusive conversation with The Bridge.
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Tracing back his journey, Ismail was a part of the Indian army and since it was compulsory to take up sports in the army, Ismail was actively participating in boxing. However, he didn't find much interest in the sport so when the rowing coach in Bengaluru asked Ismail to take up this sport, he didn't hesitate. "At that time there were no facilities in Bengaluru, therefore, I was sent to Pune in 1987 and after rigorously being a part of the game, I fell in love with rowing," said Ismail.
In 1989, he participated in his first national championships and in his maiden appearance, Ismail bagged a bronze in the Coxed Four event. Two years later, in 1991, Ismail converted the bronze into gold. However, the 1991 nationals was the end of his playing career, he took up NIS coaching course and at 26 years he became a coach.
Ismail was sent back to Bengaluru to train the state team. However, there he found a dearth of facilities and broken oars. His skills and experience, however, made the cut as Karnataka won the gold in Chandigarh nationals against the big teams in 1992. “Our technique and training was successful and then onwards, we started bringing medals at every national tournament our team took part in," Ismail adds.
Before the Asian Games in 1998, RFI appointed Ukrainian Dmitri to be the coach of the Indian national team. Dmitri, was closely following Ismail and he asked Ismail to join the team as the assistant coach. It was Ismail's first big breakthrough as a coach to be a part of the Indian team. Following the Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998, Ismail was appointed as the chief coach in 1999. "The Asian Championship in Japan was my first outing as an independent coach, and there we won 3 silver and 1 bronze medals,” said Ismail.
As the coxless pair finished second in Asian Championship and after Japan’s withdrawal, the rowers qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney for the first time in history. The Indian camp was also shifted from Pune to Hyderabad. "I can proudly say that I have been the coach of the Indian team in all the Olympics our team has participated in," quips Ismail.
It was under Ismail's stewardship. India clinched silver in Asian Games as Bajranglal Takhar (single sculls) stood second in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. In 2010, the record was bettered with the team winning a gold, three silver and one bronze medals at the Asian games. The medal spree continued in 2014 and 2018 as well by the likes of Sawarn Singh, Dattu Baban Bhokanal, Om Prakash, Sukhmeet Singh, who were all trained by Ismail.