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Dattu Bhokanal's Road to Rio: Water Phobia, Debt, Family Tragedy

Photo Credit: Facebook

Photo Credit: Facebook

The journey of India's sole rower to secure an Olympic berth has been full of treacherous turns that he was able to survive with the help of Indian Army.

Dattu Baban Bhokanal, son of a well-digger in a small Maharashtra village named Talegaon, is a hawaldar with the Indian Army. But that's not his claim to fame.

The man who once used to be afraid of water now marshals it, and does it so efficiently that this 24-year-old now earns the distinction of being India's sole representation in Rowing at the coming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Dattu's story adds more than a bit of intrigue to it when one learns that he first gripped the rowing oars only in 2012 – after losing his father in 2011 and selling off everything the family owned to pay off the debts.

Four years from that day and a lot of back-breaking effort and sweat broken in between, this men's single sculls rower won a silver medal at the FISA Asian and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta in South Korea. And with it came the priceless Olympic ticket.

In 2011, when his father died leaving behind three sons and his wife, the only thing Dattu had with him was debts.

As the eldest son of the family, Dattu used to help his father in digging wells in a village in Nashik but never left studies behind and continued schooling. He always wanted to excel in academics, but life took a turn.

Dattu had cleared only matriculation when the Bhokanal family lost their sole bread-earner.

Father's death and the burden of debt left Dattu with no choice but to sell the family tractor and some piece of land, and then he learned about Indian Army's open selection drive that swung things around.

"We were under a huge debt. After my father’s death, whatever savings he left I had to use that to get rid of debt. Still it wasn't enough, and I had to sell our tractor and some piece of land, too," Dattu told News18 Sports in an interview.

It was always tough to make ends meet when Dattu had two brothers and his mother to feed. Then, the army came calling.

"I tried my luck in [Indian Army's] open recruitment drive in 2012 and got selected. I was really happy. I hugged my brothers and mother the day I got selected. Thanks to God for everything," an emotional Dattu said.

Water scare and army is a no-no combination. The first step towards getting rid of that phobia was learning how to swim.

"Yes, this is true. I was always afraid of water. I was scared of getting drowned," Bhokanal said. "My Subedar sir pushed me into Rowing despite knowing I do not know swimming. He showed the faith in me."

But Dattu rode his fear, learned swimming and then had his first date with a boat.

"Honestly, I was really scared. The guy who does not know how to swim, he is going to row a boat. I used to be so nervous. Initially my boat turned many a times and I had to swim across to the bank of the river along with my boat and then start again."

The 2014 National Championships saw Dattu come of age and win twin gold medals.

"It was hard to believe such a performance. I used to be scared of water and now I was riding it," said the 6-feet-4-inch rower.

But testing times didn't end there for Dattu, both on and off water. On it was the challenge to qualify for Rio; and off it, he saw his mother meeting an unfortunate accident just before the Olympics qualification event.

She sustained a brain injury and is still in the hospital, recovering. Here too, Dattu's job with the army came to the family's rescue.

She was admitted to the Army Hospital in Pune, which gave Dattu the courage to go ahead with his travel to Korea for the qualifiers.

"She is in the Army Hospital in Pune and getting good treatment. I am eager to tell her about my Olympic qualification, [but] I am also worried about her, [though] she is pretty good now. She is recovering," a worried son told with a lump in his throat.

While the pendulum kept swinging between best and worst for Dattu, he never gave up. That's precisely why he has managed to become the ninth rower to represent India at the Olympics since 2000.

For sure, you need strong characters like Dattu to come through the treacherous times he had to face and still stay on his feet. And how he manages to do that, he told with a sweet signing-off line.

"I am just keeping everything simple."