Desire for medal kept Tokyo Olympics bound rowers Arjun Jat & Arvind Singh motivated amid setbacks
Indian rowing pair of Arjun Jat and Arvind Singh is well-tuned for the Tokyo Olympics and a busy roster of competitions ahead.
A satisfactory demeanor was evident on the face of 55-year-old veteran Indian rowing coach Ismail Baig while speaking highly of two of his pupils, Arvind Singh and Arjun Jat, who have qualified for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The 2016 Rio Olympics did not have anything in store for Indian lightweight double scull rowers — the pair of Vikram Singh and Roopendra Singh — finishing fifth in the finals of the qualifiers, unable to seek an entry into the Games. Arjun and Arvind's partnership has somewhat brought relief this time.
Arjun and Arvind, clocked 6:36.92 seconds while finishing second in the Asia-Oceania Qualification event held at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo in May and secured their berths for Tokyo.
Singles sculler Jakar Khan also earned qualification after finishing fourth in singles scull with a time of 7:21.96, but as per the World Rowing's (FISA) rules, a country could get a berth in the only event from this competition, and the best-placed team progressed. Nevertheless, Ismail, who has been the coach of the Indian rowing team in all the six Olympics it has taken part in, is contented with the result.
"I started coaching Arjun and Arvind in 2018, and the way they have progressed has yielded promising results. I never had any doubt about their qualification for the Olympics. Their achievement is more special because they earned it when everything went for a toss because of the coronavirus. We were under strict protocols, we couldn't go outside. There were enough reasons to be demotivated. The double scullers couldn't qualify in 2016, but I can now cherish Arjun and Arvind's achievements," quipped Baig in an exclusive conversation with The Bridge.
Rowing has never been a popular sport among Indian civilians and has produced most of its athletes from the highly competitive ecosystem of the Indian Army. And that is why both Arjun and Arvind, who hails from humble farming backgrounds, never knew about the sport before joining the Army. The Indian Army is the aspiration of thousands of youngsters who belong to the farming community as the army guarantees necessary job security.
Arvind, hailing from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, now a Naib Subedar, joined the Army in 2016 following the footsteps of his elder brother. "I did not know anything about rowing before joining the army. I grew up in a village and didn't even know a sport like rowing existed. After coming to the army, I witnessed the sport and fell in love with it. My interest grew slowly towards the sport and I realised that if I pursue this, I could skip the regular army training and duties and my sole focus will be on the sport. I enjoyed this bit and tried my best to be a dependable athlete for India," says Arvind.
Arjun, also a Naib Subedar from Jaipur in Rajsthan, was introduced to the sport by India's first gold medallist rower in Asian Games, Bajrang Lal Takhar, when he joined the Rajputana Rifles in 2015. A calm natured 24-year-old Arjun says, "Bajrang Sir took me to see rowing one day after I joined the Army. When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't understand what was being done but liked its view. Sir taught me the basics and slowly, as I picked up the sport, he inducted me to the Delhi rowing team."
Nobody among the pair knew about the Olympic Games before 2016, neither their face speaks of the significance of their achievement; destiny had their match 'made in streams' when both met for the first time in 2017 during an All-India rowing selection trials. They were among the chosen ones to train under the legendary Ismail Baig since 2018 at the Army Institute of Sports in 2018. What Baig saw in them was a silent camaraderie which led them to be a part of the reserve team in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, when the team of Rohit Kumar and Bhagwan Singh clinched bronze in the lightweight double sculls for India. A year later in 2019, the duo travelled to Chungju, South Korea as the first choice pair for the Asian Championships. They won a silver medal as India produced a five-medal haul after finishing with a grand total of one medal in the previous two editions.
When asked to speak about their camaraderie, Arvind told The Bridge, "In the 2018 Asian Games we were a part of the reserve team in India, and that's how we became good friends. We rely on each other a lot. Once we take part in a tournament, we go back to the drawing-room to discuss the elements we could have changed from our performance, where we could have been better, among other things."
It is probably because of these practices, the duo could produce their best timing ever when it mattered the most. At the Olympic qualifiers, they covered the distance of 2000m in 6:36.92, and crossed the finish line 2.22 seconds behind the Japanese team of Naoki Furuta and Mitsuo Nishimura, ahead of stronger teams like Uzbekistan.
"We were setting our goals for the Asian Games 2022, to win a medal. The lockdown in 2020 was a big setback as we were brought under bio bubble for training since October 2020. There was nothing to be motivated about. The dream of winning a medal for our country held us together. We forgot every other pursuit and carefully worked together for our goals and that has led us to qualify for Olympics," says the duo. With their qualification, the duo has been moved from the development group to the core group of the Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) by the Government of India.
The Asian qualifying event took place at the same venue that will host the rowing event at the Tokyo Olympics. But with the world still coping with the pandemic, there was no fanfare or excitement.
"Mingling with even team-mates was not allowed at the hotel and at the competition venue. Wearing a mask was mandatory all the time except for eating, drinking and during training and competitions. We were kept together at a floor of the hotel but had to stay inside our rooms," Arvind had told in an interview earlier with PTI.
The duo who are harvesting Olympic dreams now will have to punch much higher above their weights to earn a podium finish at the games. But they say they will not rest after the Games are over as the Olympics is just a tip of their busy roster ahead with Asian Championships and World Championships. Following Baig's advice as their holy writ, both Arjun and Arvind eyes the yellow metal at the Asian Games next year.