Nicolae Gioga has a reputation. The 66-year-old Romanian has won medals in international competitions with every rowing team he has worked in the past and their is a distinctive pride in his voice when he insists that he has won more gold medals that silver and bronze in his coaching career.
Having successfully helped Iran win their first gold medal at the world U-23 championship and see a women rower qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in his earlier job, Gioga came to India with a promise to end the country’s gold medal drought at the Asian level and probably help the team qualify more than one boat for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
And the Romanian is going about his job to achieve those goals by pushing a bunch of about 40 rowers, three sessions a day, at the Army Rowing Node in Pune while working on the balance of their boats and emphasising on the need for training without breaks.
The rowers and even the Indian coaching staff was a bit apprehensive of the methods employed by Gioga in the initial weeks as many of them felt that the intensity of training could break them down. But things have begun to settle in with the coach also adapting to the requirements in India.
But his frustration is quite visible when he speaks of players regularly missing sessions due to illness or muscular pain and insists that if these issues were sorted out, there was no reason why the Indian rowers could not challenge the best in the world in coming years.
“The athletes’ attitude is very good. Indian rowers could be faster than all the others Asian rowers. Unfortunately, their body physical construction (physical conditioning) is not as strong as their wish and as we need. I had worked with both China and Iran and there I did not have so many diverse medical problems,” he told The Field.
Though Gioga prefers not to elaborate on the issue, sources in the camp admit that the rowers regularly suffer from niggles and pains apart from regular ‘upset’ stomachs and fever which pushes their progress back by some degree. It is precisely why the coaching staff and decided against giving the camp a planned one week break (towards the end of May). They wanted the campers to continue uninterrupted practice till the Asian Games in August.
India is expected to participate in a total of 11 events at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang with eight men’s teams and three women team challenging for a medal at the Jakabaring Lake in Palembang.
The Indian contingent has so far won just one gold, through Bajrang Lal Thakar in single sculls at the 2010 Guangzhou Games, in the Asian Games and could manage just one bronze in the 2017 Asian Championship in lightweight coxless four category.
When he took over as India coach, Gioga had set himself a target of winning medals in all 11 events at the Asian Games with at least seven gold medals. However, the 66-year-old admits that he was bit too “optimistic” but insists that all the men teams should definitely return with a medal.
“Always my target is to win the gold medals with the rowers I am leading. I have chosen India as a new challenge... my challenge was to prepare Indian rowers to be able to win seven gold medals and come back from Jakarta with all our rowers’ medalists,” said Gioga, who insists that aiming for anything below his 2017 Asian Championship tally of five gold medals with Iran was not acceptable for him.
“Now, as I can see I was a little bit too optimistic! Hundred percent... the boys will be medalists. They will fight for winning the gold medals. I will do my best to increase the speed of the girls’ boat, and I hope they can fight for medals,” said the man who was named the 2000 International Coach of the Year by The Independent Rowing News for helping the Romanian women’s eight team to their second successive Olympic gold in Sydney apart from winning two more gold medals with the women’s squad in the same edition.
Gioga, however, is still looking for ways to raise the bar with women rowers in India and says he is still on the lookout for talent in that category. “We invited medalists from the 2017 Indian National Rowing Championships and some rowers with suitable anthropometrical measurements for the Asian camp. However, from 22 girls we could only choose 6 girls after which we added 5 junior rowers.”
The real challenge for the Romanian is to ensure that India manages to qualify at least one women’s team for the 2020 Olympics as the gender equality rules for the Games mean that no national federation can field more than one men’s team even if more qualify unless there are almost equal number of women’s team qualifying.
“Next year, we will have to build two boats capable of fighting to qualify for the Olympic Games by performing at the 2019 World Rowing Championships. In 2020, we are going to qualify for one men event and one women event,” he insists.
Given that India has never qualified for the Olympics from the world quota or had a women rower making it to the Games, even that would be a commendable achievement.
But not for Gioga, who only likes to measure achievements only by the number of medals he has won. Only then will he rest easy.