Dattu Baban Bhokanal grew up in the remote, drought-ridden village of Talegaon Rohi in India’s western Maharashtra state.
Water was a precious commodity. Bhokanal helped his father earn money by digging wells in the parched ground. On their small farm they grew tomatoes, potatoes and onions, but there was never enough water for the crops.
“We needed to drink first so the agriculture was limited,” he said.
When Bhokanal decided to become a rower, he had never seen any body of water larger than a puddle. He had no idea how to swim. He was afraid of drowning.
But on Saturday, four years after he first got into a boat, Bhokanal rowed in the Rio Olympics. Competing in the single sculls division, he covered 2,000 meters across the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in 7:21.67 to finish third in his heat, 13 seconds behind the Mexican athlete in second. Cuba placed first.
Bhokanal advanced to Tuesday’s quarterfinals, keeping his Olympic dream alive.
“It’s surreal,” he said. “Nobody in my hometown could have imagined I’d be here.”
Bhokanal, the only rower on India’s Olympic team, prepared for the Rio Games by training at the Miami Beach Rowing Club in June and July. His coach is Paul Mokha, a former University of Miami, Barry and UCLA coach and U.S. women’s national team assistant who rowed at Temple and for the U.S.
“Miami was the perfect setting for me to train twice a day,” Bhokanal said. “Paul has taught me so much and showed faith in me.”
He felt good about his strength and rhythm in adhering to his race plan Saturday.
“That’s a very good result in the toughest heat in his first international competition outside of Asia,” Mokha said. “He got into qualifying position and held it, which gave him confidence. He will take a shot at making the A-B semi which would be like his gold medal.”
Bhokanal, 25, was 19 when his father died from bone cancer. Bhokanal had to provide for his mother, grandparents and two younger brothers.
“My struggles were born before I was,” he said.
He got a gas station job that paid $75 a month. He met soldiers who persuaded him to join the army. He was posted to the Bombay Engineering Group in Pune. There was a rowing lagoon at the base and because Bhokanal is 6-4, he was encouraged to try the sport.
“I realized I could either row or be sent to the border to fight with a machine gun and get shot on the front lines,” he said.
Learning to row was an ordeal. He capsized over and over and had to be fished out by teammates.
“The water was something brand new to me,” he said. “I’m still not a good swimmer but I have a passion for rowing.”
India is the second most populous country in the world with 1.3 billion people and is expected to surpass China by 2022. It’s a diverse nation of 2,000 ethnic groups, multiple languages and religions in 36 states.
India has the worst record at the Olympics in medals per capita. India brought a team of 60 men and 23 women to London in 2012 and had its best showing, winning six medals, one for every 2.2 million people. India won three medals in 2008, including a rare gold, in men’s 10-meter rifle. Bhokanal’s finish was bright spot on a day when two Indian shooters expected to win medals were eliminated.
Compare India to Finland, which ranks first in Olympic medals per capita with 302 for a population of 5.4 million, or one medal for every 18,000 people, or the Bahamas, with 12 medals for a population of 400,000, or one for every 33,333 people, or Jamaica, with 67 medals for 2.7 million, or one for every 40,300 people. The U.S. has won one medal for every 134,301 people.
The Olympic menu doesn’t include cricket, by far India’s most popular sport.
India is a sleeping sports giant, as China used to be. Bhokanal attributes his country’s meager results to the dominance of cricket and lack of government coordination.
“Every state is so different from the next that it’s a divided country – it’s not the United States of India,” he said. “The central government has less power than the state governments so there is no system to develop athletes and teams.”
Mokha said political infighting, bureaucracy and corruption are to blame.
“Rampant problems that hold India back,” he said.
Mokha coached the 60 members of India’s army rowing team for the past 18 months. His father was born in Punjab and he’s spent time in India over the years visiting relatives.
He brought 10 of his rowers to the U.S. club championships in the spring, where they won seven medals “and were the talk of the regatta,” he said. “A little success could change minds and ideas in India and create a better sports infrastructure.”
Bhokanal qualified for the Olympics when his mother was in a coma after suffering a stroke. He wants to return home and tell her all about Rio.
“I can bring hope to my village,” he said. “If only I could bring water.”