It was Bajrang Lal Takhar's gift to the embattled Indian contingent. At least for the next couple of days, the gigantic 843-member team — officials included — will heave a sigh of relief that they would not be cornered by uncomfortable questions.
The humble 29-year-old from Sikar (Rajasthan) brooked little challenge on way to creating history by becoming the first Indian rower to clinch a gold at the Games, though he had come within sniffing distance of a top podium finish at the 2006 Doha Games, before settling for silver. It was a day Indian rowers gave a lesson or two to their counterparts in other disciplines on how to win medals. The Indian men's eight and the frail-looking women's pair of Pramila Prava Minz and Pratima Puhana from Orissa added to the celebrations, winning silver and bronze respectively, to add to the two silver bagged on Thursday.
The moment Takhar crossed the finish line in the singles sculls, chants of “Bharat mata ki jai, Bajrang ji ki jai”, rent the air. It was not just a poignant moment for his teammates but for the entire media contingent, which shed a tear or two in happiness.
Such has been the medal drought that federation officials accompanying the contingent have been staying away from the media glare, lest they be asked probing questions.
But on Friday, at the picturesque International Rowing Centre, there was no shortage of accolades for the champion. For a moment, it seemed that Takhar had purged the 'sins' of the Indian jamboree, which has come here to add to the numbers, than do anything worthwhile. The sinewy Thakar, who trains at the high-performance centre developed by the Rowing Federation of India near the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad, was a good four seconds ahead of Chinese Taipei's Wang Ming Hui with a time of 1:50.35.
“It was clear after the first 500 metres that I was cruising along for gold. I had taken the lead. Since all the rowers were known to me, I knew their strengths and weaknesses,” said the Army subedar, who was selected from a group of 17 Rajasthan Rifles recruits as a greenhorn.
“He didn't even know how to swim when we selected him for the sport. But over the years, he has matured into a fine athlete,” said RS Bhanwala, a veteran rower.
“It's been a long journey for me since I was selected in 2002. I have been preparing for this day. When I missed the Doha Asian Games gold because of the water currents, I became even more determined to win the top position. The Asian Championship gold last year gave me the confidence to gun for the top. Today, I was confident because I had achieved the same time in Hyderabad.
“I had studied every team's strategy and that helped. I blasted off after the 500m mark and no one could catch me. In rowing, experience is more important that endurance.
Everyone can improve his endurance, but experience comes with time and rigorous practice,” were Thakar's words of wisdom to his team-mates, who listened with rapt attention.
His next target? “The Olympics. I know age is not on my side. I am 29, but I want to leave on a high. At Beijing 2008, I missed the semifinals, which still rankles but in London, I will make it to the final,” he said.