"My day starts worrying about rowing, and my day ends worrying about rowing," quips Rowing Federation of India (RFI) president Rajlaxmi Singh Deo. The 60-year-old, who is serving her last term as the chief, is one of the longest-serving women presidents of an Indian National Sports Federation (NSF).
Elected in 2012, in one of the rarest instance in Indian sports bodies, Rajlaxmi had succeeded her husband CP Singh Deo as the RFI president following the general body elections. And over the next ten years — after several trials and baptisms of fire — the sexagenarian has stood like a sturdy mast that has sailed RFI's ship to uncharted glory. In fact, India's two best finishes in rowing at the Olympics came under the stewardship of Rajlaxmi Singh Deo.
While India was basking in the glory of seven medals at the Tokyo Olympics and a few close finishes like that of golfer Aditi Ashok and the women's hockey team, two men silently created history at the Sea Forest Waterway — the rowing venue of the Games. Arjun Lal Jat and Arvind Singh produced the best-ever performance from Indian rowers at the Summer Games with an 11th finish in the Men's Lightweight Double Sculls.
Indian rowers with coach Ismail Baig at Tokyo Olympics (Source: RFI)
Though they were never in medal contention, they had already made India proud while also making history in the process by being the first Indian rowers to qualify for Semi-Finals A/B. At Rio 2016, rower Dattu Bhokanal had finished 13th in the single sculls competition.
got the opportunity to speak with her at length, where she wields her sharp memory to speak at length on her achievements, challenges, and vision she envisages for Indian rowing.
When asked about her interest in sports and background in taking up this huge responsibility, she recounts her passion for sports since her childhood days and how it helped her to be a part of the eco-system.
"As a child, I was always interested in sports. When we were growing up in Odisha, there were very few avenues of recreation. I was studying in an all-boys school and I was the only girl in my class. I kept on following the sports the boys pursued. I used to read sports weeklies regularly and used to mug them from the front cover to the back. Prakash Padukone was playing badminton at that time, I also remember Argentina winning the Football World Cup in 1978. So the interest and passion for sports followed on and I kept following India's journey in sports. I followed Asian Games, the Olympics, and back then I never had dreamt that I would be a part of India's sporting journey. It's like a hobby for me to memorise the name of athletes and their scores. Even during the Tokyo Olympics, I memorised the names of all the Indian athletes and followed their action," says Rajlaxmi.
Being married to the ex-RFI President, CP Singh Deo, Rajlaxmi started helping him out with his office work when the RFI was still a limited entity. Gradually, she grew involved in the sport which led to a passionate connection with rowing. Her first major involvement in rowing came in 2002 when Andhra Pradesh hosted the National Games. It was the first time a six-course rowing lane was built at the Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad, which resulted in a grand success for rowing. This is when Rajlaxmi made her impact felt in the federation.
She says, "In 2008, I got elected as the EC of RFI. I was involved with the junior and women's program. I was working every day for eight to twelve hours looking over these two aspects and the best moment for me came in 2010 when the women's pair won a medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. This was India's only rowing medal in Asian Games by the women rowers."
To carry forward the same momentum she was elected as the President in 2012.
She adds, "In my initial days, I was quite nervous, and quite silent. It was a big responsibility on my shoulders. When I started, the biggest challenge for me was to carry the legacy of my predecessors."
The improved performance of Indian rowers at the Asian Games and regular representation at the Olympics is a strong indicator that rowing as a sport is gaining momentum in India.
"However, I believe, India, like other Asian countries, needs to do a lot more if they are to be considered serious medal prospects at high-profile events like the Summer Olympics and World Championships," Rajlaxmi points out.
When asked about the major challenges she has faced during her tenure, she addresses the elephant in the room that came as blessing for Indian rowing, but is falling short of doing the extra bit. In the Indian context, the sport of rowing is heavily reliant on the Indian Army. Rowers come from the Army Rowing Node (ARN), which is located in the College of Military Engineering (CME) campus in Pune run Services – ARN is also the country's only Olympic-sized rowing facility.
"And because of this autonomy of the ARN, we are performing to our limited capacities," says Rajlaxmi.
Earlier, rowing centres used to exist in different parts of the country which would fetch regular competitors from a civilian background. Now, with the army node having the only good facility, the entire grassroots has shifted to the army. There is barely any scope for civilians.
"The army has invested heavily in rowing and they also have good equipment. But they need to figure out how can they make the sport more competitive. The army should have different centres so at least there should be a legit competition among the bests. This is also burning out our rowers, which was evident in the junior and senior rowing championships held earlier this year," says Rajlaxmi.
Rowing National CHampionships at the Army Rowing Node in Pune (Source: ADG PI - INDIAN ARMY/Twitter)
"I am worried that the Asian Games are in seven months, and I will try one last time to decentralise this rowing system appointing new coaches to train the rowers in centres like Hyderabad and Bhopal and not only concentrated in the Army Institute in Pune," she adds
Taking cue from Arjun and Arvind's performances at the Tokyo Olympics, she emphasises, "I was satisfied with results of the rowers in the Olympics. They did their best. But I still feel we can do much better job, if we can broaden our perspective in the sport, not just restrict it to the army. If they work in tandem with the federation, we can produce much better results. Even if there are four to five well-equipped centres in India, we can march on with our steady progress."
She adds, "Our challenge is the equipment. The best facilities are lying in the army, so that's why we are seeking help from the army to open more centres across the country so that others can enthusiastically join this sport. In states like Madhya Pradesh, the government has come up with plenty of equipment support. I request state governments to also come and help growing this sport in their particular states."
It's not just Asian Games where our rowers made us proud. Even at the Asian Indoor Rowing Championship in Thailand, the country's rowers reaped a rich harvest of medals, bagging 7 gold, 5 silver, and 1 bronze medals for a total medal haul of 13 medals. One hopes that the sport can tide over the prevailing infrastructure challenges, spread out and help the country emerge as a world-beater.