Leaving to Old Blighty with modest ambitions

It's early morning, and the choppy waters of Hyderabad's Hussain Sagar Lake come alive to the sounds of oars cutting through the waves.

The voice of a tall man echoes around the lake. Ismail Baig is shouting instructions over his mega phone, telling his wards and fellow coaches on where to go and what to do. “Keep the knees together when you push. Keep the balance steady,” he commands.

It's a familiar routine and as his trainees head towards the calmer waters, the National coach sits back in his boat and casts a glance around what has been his home for the better part of the last decade.

“These are tough conditions and because of the rain, the water is rough,” says the Dro-nacharya awardee. “If we perform well here, we can do well anywhere else in the world.”

Indeed, the water is far from clean and the wind is making it rough but these are just occupational hazards for the cream of India's rowing talent. Sun is yet to make an appearance but come dawn or dusk, the elite rowers are right there at their humble base, fine-tuning their craft with the sole aim of winning laurels for the country.

Their dedication paid off two years ago, with the country winning their first-ever gold medal at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Now, with the Olympic Games just round the corner, the three rowers who have gained Olympic berths are applying finishing touches to their preparations under Baig's watchful eyes. They know that a medal is out of their reach but that doesn't stop them from putting in that extra yard.

Sawarn Singh in single sculls and Manjeet Singh and Sandeep Kumar in light-weight double sculls are the Indian entrants for London. Of the three, Manjeet will be competing in his second Olympics while the other two will make their debut. 

“Beijing was a dream come true for me, being my first Olympics,” says Manjeet, after the two-hour training session. Manjeet was 18th along with Devender in Beijing in his debut Games. “This time I want to do better. I am working hard for it and my timings have improved,” adds the 24-year-old from Punjab's Ferozepur district, whose career really took after he joined the Army in 2004.

Army, in fact, has been the common factor in all the progress of all the three rowers.

Sandeep, who hails from Rajasthan came to the Services fold in 2006 while the 22-year-old Sawarn, from Mansa district of Punjab, took up rowing only after joining the Army in 2009.

Sawarn has quickly moved up the ranks and finished 17th in last year's World Championships, which was his first international competition. And he sealed his Olympics berth with another fine show, winning the Asian qualifiers in Chung Ju, Korea in April. “I was totally inexperienced when I competed in the world championships, but with a couple of competitions under my belt, I am more confident and also stronger now,” says Sawarn. 

Rowers from European countries and New Zealand are expected to dominate in London, while the Indians are unsure about the conditions that await them there. Also, they will be rowing on rented boats, with their own boats yet to reach them after the Asian qualifiers. 

Their ambitions, as such, are very modest. 

“My aim is at least to reach the 'B' final (for placings from sixth to 12th),” says Manjeet, who won two silver medals at the Guangzhou Asian Games as part of the coxless eight and light-weight coxless four teams.

Those medals made Manjeet famous back home. “They had little idea on what rowing was all about. Now they are flocking to learn the spot,” he grins, even as the bunch heads for breakfast at the base camp – a tent on the shores of the lake.

It's a family atmosphere as junior rowers, training for the Asian championships, too join in. Discipline is evident but moments of fun enliven the breakfast table. “This is the secret of our success,” says former MEG man Baig, who along with his assistants M T Binu, Johnson Xavier, Jenil Krishnan, Babu John and Elbison M T have proved a solid support for the youngsters. “Things have improved after our Asian Games success but we still have a long way to go to match the big guns.”

London might not be a leap forward for Baig and his team but if they create a ripple or two, rowing will remain in sharp focus for future games.

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