During a chat with college students in Jaipur last year, rower Bajrang Lal Takhar spoke about one of his proudest moment as an army man when he got to salute the President of India while receiving the Arjuna Award and then the Padma Shri. It was special for him as the President is also the Commander-in-chief and only a select few from the services get to meet him.
He won the Arjuna Award 2008 and the Padma Shri in 2013 but for the Indian sports fan, the historic moment that Takhar would be remembered came in 2010 in Guangzhou when the Naib Subedar became the first Indian rower ever to clinch a gold medal at the Asian Games.
The 39-year-old remains the only individual gold medallist in the continental competition with the only other title triumph coming in the Quadruple Sculls at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
Takhar led that race from start to finish and provided the Indian contingent, who had just one gold medal from Pankaj Advani to show after seven days of competition, a major reason to cheer.
“I had missed out on the gold in the 2006 Asian Games by a very fine margin and had trained exceptionally hard since that day to clinch this gold medal. I had studied the race strategies of all my opponents and was confident of winning the race,” Takhar told Scroll.in from his home in Jaipur.
Incidentally, four years earlier, Takhar had become the first Indian rower to clinch a silver medal at the continental showpiece.
“Before we went to the Games, my coach had told me that I should aim to change the colour of the medal India has been winning so far. I was really close to winning the gold but inexperience cost me (in 2006) since I did not look behind to check how far my Korean opponent was in the closing stages,” said Takhar, who was introduced to rowing in 2001 and clinched his first national title in 2004.
A natural athlete
Just like many members of the Indian rowing team, Takhar had no idea about the sport till he joined the Indian army. He was particularly fond of playing basketball given his tall frame and was hoping to make it to the Services team during his training period in Delhi.
“While we were playing basketball one day when the then Rowing Federation of India president KP Singh Deo came and spoke to us about taking up the sport. We were a group of 17-18 jawans who were physically very strong and were considered to be good at sports and that is how my journey started,” said the rower, who belongs to Sikar district of Rajasthan.
“Four of them won a medal at the 2006 Asian Games but by the time 2010 Games came I was the only one from that group who was still competing,” said Takhar while pointing out the injury-prone nature of the sport.
In that aspect, Takhar is spoken about as a rare phenomenon in Indian rowing as he had a natural physique of a rower and had the ability to generate explosive power at the start of the race, which would end up giving him quite an advantage over his competitors.
“When we first went for training to Hyderabad, we were made to train on ergometers (apparatus that measures work or energy expended during a period of physical exercise) and used to be given specific tasks in each training session. I used to not only complete the task but could do more with my heart rate staying around 180. That encouraged the coaches to give me more attention and I was determined to make the most of their confidence in me,” he added.
Takhar won the 2007 Asian Championship gold and repeated that feat in the 2009 edition before the Asian Games. It also helped Takhar’s cause that the sports ministry also extended him additional support after reaching the quarter-finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He was sent to train in Europe before the 2010 Asian Games and provided with better equipment.
Things have changed for good since then with the national campers getting better facilities and Takhar has been working with some of them at the camps for short durations.
Asked what it would take for Indian rowers to consistently challenge for the gold medals at least at the continental level and Takhar said:
“There are quite a few rowers who have very good strength. There is one rower from Punjab who shows fantastic results on the ergometer but cannot replicate the same in the water. This is mostly because they are not willing to push their bodies beyond a certain limit. But more importantly, they try to conserve themselves in water as they don’t believe in their own strength.
“The players need to spend more time thinking about their strengths and weaknesses and how they can make the most of their abilities. If they do that, we can have many more champions in the near future.”
Takhar, who took voluntary retirement from the army in 2015, has been trying to promote the sport in Rajasthan since he believes that the physique of youngsters from the state was quite suitable for the sport. He, however, said it’s the lack of support and interest in the sport at the government level that has been a real hindrance.
“The water bodies are owned by the state. So we need their permission to do any activities. Also we need to have place to store equipment and all.
“When I won the Asian Games medal, the Ashok Gehlot government had then announced that they will start a rowing academy in Kota. Nothing has happened on that front. The Ramgarh lake which hosted the 1982 Asian Games has been dry since 2000 as the government did nothing to preserve it,” he added.
Despite that, Takhar has been taking youngsters from the state to Bhopal and other places to train through the year and has sent a few dozen to join various departments of the services so that their sports career could take flight.
“The problem is most of these kids are willing to do anything till they get a job. But once they get the job the hunger to keep working hard diminishes,” he said.
On a personal level, Takhar sometimes wonders whether he still has it in him to race again; he, indeed, tried training again a couple of times in the last few years. “Olaf Tufte won an Olympic medal at the age of 40. I also tried to train again but now the body breaks down. In India, most of the rowers start the sport really late and that takes a toll on the body.
“In contrast, when we went to China for training a few years ago we could see boys training hard at early age. We also need more numbers to train given the injury prone nature of the sport. Things are improving for sure but it will take time,” he added.