On the up: A rowing success story scripted by the Army
All the 17 rowers who stood on the podium are part of Armed Forces - 15 of them from the Indian Army and two from the Navy
Arvind Singh and Arjun Lal Jat had never heard of rowing until they chanced upon the sport after joining the Indian Army.
Coming from a little-known village called Khabre in Bulandshahr district or Uttar Pradesh, Arvind took part in athletics and cricket in his school days. Arjun, on the other hand, was not interested in any sport during his growing up days at Nayabas village of Churu district in Rajasthan. As a teenager, he was driven by the idea of getting selected for the Indian Army much like his two brothers. Little did he know that the call to serve the nation in 2014 would be a life changing experience of a different kind.
It was as an Armyman that Arjun was first introduced to rowing by Bajrang Lal Takhar, one of India's greats in the sport who has seen the glitter of three Asiad medals including a rare gold in singles sculls in 2010 Guangzhou.
With a sharp eye for rowing talents, Armyman Takhar brought together the pairing of Arjun and Arvind for the lightweight doubles sculls event in 2017 setting up a highly successful paring at international level. The Tokyo Olympian duo were favourites for a podium finish, and did it in spectacular fashion on Sunday, becoming the first from the country to claim a silver medal in the event.
Before this, India had won three bronze medals in lightweight doubles sculls. The oarsmen won another silver (Men's Eight) and bronze (Men's Pair) on the opening day to give a rousing start to India's campaign at the Asian Games.
The rowers continued with their brilliant display on the Beizhi riverfront on Monday, adding two more bronze medals (Men's Four and Men's Quadrauple Sculls) for a tally of five medals -- matching their best haul of five medals achieved during the 2010 Asian Games -- incidentally that performance also came in the backyard of China -- the continental powerhouse in the sport.
It is not only Arvind and Arjun whose combination was forged by the Indian Army. In the success of the rowers in Hangzhou, the Army has played a massive role. All the 17 rowers who stood on the podium are part of the Armed Forces -- 15 of them from the Indian Army and two from the Navy.
"It would not have been possible with the support of the Indian Army that has put so much of resources and expertise to build a strong team of rowers," says Takhar, who is now a coach with the rowing team in Hangzhou.
"Of course, we get funds from the government and the federation too plays its part, but the Army is the fulcrum if you look it at that way," says Takhar, the Olympian and only Indian rower to win an individual gold at the Games.
From identifying and nurturing young talents, providing them facilities and equipment and training them for the elite level, Indian Army is the vital cog around rowers.
Around the time when India's biggest success in the sport came at the 2010 Asian Games, the Army built a state-of-the-art rowing facility on the College of Military Engineering (CME) campus in Pune. The centre -- Army Rowing Node (ARN) -- is the only man-made course in the country to train rowers.
"It is the only man-made rowing course in India and we have to thank the Indian Army to bring up such a facility. We train there round the year. There are around 90-100 rowers coming from seven Army units who train at ARN. Then we also organise national camps there," says chief coach Ismail Baig, a former rower and Armyman, who retired as Subedar Major.
The team used to train in open water bodies before the ARN centre came up. The 2km long course has all the facilities needed for holding competitions and regattas, including a finish tower and a boathouse.
"It would not have been possible without the support of Army. At ARN we get all the facilities at one place. If you look at the boat clubs you don't get everything -- be it gymnasium, good quality boats and oars, coaches," said Arvind.
"We went with the mindset of winning silver medal but during the race we we were able to push ourselves and challenge the Chinese team. That is a big positive for us. China is world class but it is not that we cannot come close or maybe even beat them in the next race," he says.
Hyderabad's Hussain Sagar lake is another training destination for rowers, where talent is drawn from Army's Artillery Centre.
The Army Boys Sports Company (ABSC) -- joint programme of Army and Sports Authority of India -- is also a project from where talents are drawn from a young age in the two centres in Pune and Roorkee. At ABSC, sporting talents are groomed in various disciplines, including rowing, in the age group of 8-14 years, in the disciplined environment of the Army.
In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the pathway to national rowing team is through the Army. There are many boat clubs across the country where rowing can be learnt. When any talented youngster catches the eye of coaches, they are being encouraged to join the Indian Army.
"The boys know that if you have to be in rowing you have to make it to the Indian Army. It is a good thing also becauase it gives them job security and a sense of purpose. It secures their livelihood and the athletes can then focus on the sport. They are awarded with promotion in Army which acts as a motivation," says Baig.
Takhar and Baig have come up in rowing the same way and are now serving the Indian team as coaches.
Baig has been at the helm of Indian team in as many as six Asian Games, and has witnessed the highs and lows in the sport that comes into prominence every four years with the Asian Games.
"We wanted to win a gold medal here. That's the only thing I am disappointed with. But yes, considering the tough nature of the sport we have come so far as to win five medals which is hugely satisfying," he says.
Takhar says there is immense potential for the sport to grow. "Hopefully the medals here will bring us to focus. We need more facilities. States like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, from where we get such talents... we need to have good rowing centres, equipment," he says.
After the success in Hangzhou, they have their eyes trained at qualifying for the Paris Olympics. In Tokyo, the pair of Arvind and Arjun achieved a big milestone when they became the first Indian rowers to qualify for the semi-finals at the Olympics.
"We have made good progress at the Asian level. We won four medals at the Asian Championships last year with the pair of Arvind and Arjun last year. This performance at Asiad will further motivate us to prepare for Paris Olympics qualifiers," says Takhar.