NEW DELHI — From digging wells to selling onions to working in a petrol pump to representing India at the Rio Olympics while his mother was in a coma, India's rowing star Dattu Baban Bhokanal has overcome every obstacle in life before winning the gold medal as part of India's quadruple scull team at the recently-concluded Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Hailing from Chandwad village near Nashik in Maharashtra, Dattu, the elder son of a well-digger, could hardly afford his studies after the division of his joint family.
It was in that moment — when he was still in fifth standard — that he decided to join his father as a daily wage earner. Since then, he has taken a number of odd jobs to support his family, which also included his two younger brothers and an ailing mother.
After the death of his father, he joined the Indian Army which started a new chapter in his life — a chapter which brought him into the world of sports and eventually to the Asiad gold.
"It was around 2004-05, I was in fifth standard when our family was divided. After that, we could not even afford two meals a day and it was then that I decided to start working with my father, who used to dig wells," Dattu told IANS in an interview.
"But I continued my studies while doing all sorts of odd jobs which included masonry, waiter in marriage ceremonies, helper in farms, driving tractors and JCBs, transportation of goods," he said.
In 2007, he left school and started working at a petrol pump where he was for around four years till his father died in December 2011.
"I used to earn around Rs. 3,000 every month. Together with my dad's earnings, we managed to make ends meet. But after his death, the financial burden fell on me as I was the sole bread earner of the family.
"I left school in 2007 but rejoined in 2010. At that time I used to work at the petrol pump at night and used to go to school during the day," he added.
His real journey to the Asiad gold started after he joined the army in 2012. The 27-year-old said the decision was driven more by the need to serve his family than serving the nation.
"Three months after the death of my father, I joined the army to support my family. My mother also used to keep unwell and her health was my biggest concern. There might be lack of food in a poor family but there is no dearth of love and affection," he said.
"When I worked at the petrol pump, I used to run before leaving for school and that helped me get selected in the army. Despite all the hardships, I managed to score 52 per cent in my Class X exams.
"By the end of 2012, I battled hydrophobia and started rowing under the guidance of my coach. In 2013, I was selected for the Army Rowing Node (ARN) in Pune for better training. After six months of practice, I struck two gold medals at the national championships and that was a confidence-booster," he added.
Dattu was quite candid about his craze for airplanes when he described how he used to gaze at the night sky wondering what's inside the aircraft.
"When I used to work at the pump, I slept in the nearby fields and in the night sky I could see planes flying. I always used to dream what was inside the aircraft and then came 2014 when I qualified for the Asian Games in Incheon (South Korea).
"But unfortunately, things didn't go my way and I fell unconscious, probably because of the pressure of performing at the international stage for the first time. After returning, I suffered a back injury but came back well to become Asia's best rower from 2016 to 2018," he added.
But his biggest heartbreak came in December, 2016 when his mother met an accident and went into a coma. "But I managed to keep myself composed as I had to represent the country in the Rio Olympics," he said.
Asked about his Asiad gold in 2018, Dattu explained how he battled high fever to bring glory to the nation. "I had 106 degree fever during the gold medal winning feat during the 2018 Asian Games. But there was a motivation from inside," he said.
But even after achieving so much, Dattu is still grounded as he had no hesitation in admitting he still doesn't have a home of his own.
"Even after representing India at the highest level in global competitions like the Olympics, Asian Championship, Asian Games, I still don't have a proper house. I still stay with my two younger brothers," he said.
Asked about his personal goals — such as getting married — the tall army man had a quick reply, "Not in the next two years: my focus is an Olympic gold."