With tired limbs, exploding hearts, historic gold wins India rowing redemption

The men's quadruple sculls team won India's first gold in the event at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang. PTI Photo/Vijay Verma

"Na daro arr seo jab jaye laro, nischey kar apni jit karo". (Have no fear of the enemy, be resolute and achieve victory.")

Naib Subedar Sawarn Singh knows this Punjabi verse by heart. All recruits to the Sikh regiment of the Indian army do. And on Friday afternoon when he needed it most, the verse sparked him to one of the greatest victories for his country. Singh, front rower on the men's quadruple sculls, the seniormost of four armymen on the boat, became part of Indian rowing's second Asian Games gold medal on the Jakabaring Sports City lake in Palembang on Friday morning. There would be a victory ceremony, stuffed toys, cameras and interviews. When they return to India, there will likely be felicitations and functions and cash awards.

But at one point, on a hot as hell morning with a humid cross wind trying to buffet them off course, Sawarn was in the battle of his life. With only his younger teammates - Dattu Bhokanal, Om Prakash and Sukhmeet Singh -- and the line from Guru Gobind Singh for company on a glassy lake.

India was in the lead but only just. The home team Indonesia was closing the gap steadily. The Indians felt spent. Think of the phrase "dead tired" in a sense that folks watching TV will never experience. Sawarn is one of the greats of Indian rowing and a former Asian Games bronze-medallist. The 28-year-old is far from the best shape of his career. He was out for two years with injury and returned to the boat a few months ago. He then battled through typhoid.

Among the rest of them, Bhokanal is also still recovering from a fever. The previous day he gassed out at the one kilometre mark in the individual sculls. That's precisely the point at which Bhokanal had to will himself onwards. Past the limits of his endurance. He had a cold. He sucked in the hot air and coughed out phlegm. He then spat it out and continued. That was the easy bit. His muscles leaked lactic acid, telling his mind it was making promises his body couldn't keep up with.

Bhokanal explains it later. "Your heart feels like it is going to explode. You can feel it going dhad dhad in your chest. Like you are going to have a heart attack. You just want to give up. Just put the oars down. I've raced maybe 2000 races in my life. This is the hardest one for me."

Sawarn knew this too. "Your entire body is tired. So tired. From the hair on your head to the nails on your feet. By the last 100m if you ask me my name I won't know it," he said.

The easiest thing was to quit.

Of course he didn't. "Jaan chali jayegi. Mar jayenge (We'll die) but we won't quit," he said later.

He was the oldest among on his team, the front rower, with the responsibility to lead them, when all he could see were three exhausted backs in front of him. The motto of his regiment - the Sikh regiment - urged him onwards, belonging to a hymn Deh shiva bar mohe composed by Sikh Guru Gobind Singh to motivate his troops for the horrors of war. Sawarn said later that over the past two days he'd repeated these lines to his buddies.

And so, once more, Sawarn dipped his oars into the water as did the others sitting in front of him, but following their front-row leader. "Shabash, Shabash (well done, well done)" he cries out in motivation. Once more into the fray.

The Indian rowers had a point to prove. They had lost four finals on Thursday. "A black day for Indian rowing," coach Ismail Baig had said. Two of those races had been conceded in the final dozen strokes. Foreign coach Nicolae Gioga had accused Bhokanal of tanking. A lack of mental toughness he had said. One that isn't there in others countries.

All morning the Indians he coaches seemed intent on proving him wrong. "We wanted to prove we weren't less than any other country," Bhokanal said later. The trend was set in the first race of the morning. 25-year-old Dushyant Singh, another armyman, opened India's account with a bronze. It was a medal he scrapped and scratched and clawed at to win. He was dealing with a cold too. "I felt like I was about to die. In the last two hundred metres of the race, I can't even see where I am. I can't feel my shoulders or my legs. I'm only rowing because I have to. I think to myself I'm going to quit rowing after this race. I'm done with rowing. But this race I will complete, " he said.

He said he doesn't remember when he collapsed on the the pier and when race officials lifted his legs up so blood could flow back into his brain. Who picked him off his boat. Or when he was taken to the medical centre and doctors pumped his veins with glucose and fitted an oxygen mask over his face. Or the medal ceremony being delayed just so that he could manage to stand on spaghetti legs. He remembers being a bit embarrassed for heaving just after his country's flag was raised and collapsing before being wheeled out on a stretcher.

Coaches later had explanations for why the Indians seem to be struggling so much. One was that the team is training on a short course in Pune and not the larger Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad. That meant the team wasn't prepared for the lung bursting strain they put their bodies through in Palembang. Even though they didn't have it, they managed to find the energy in some unknown crevice of their bodies.

"I don't know where we found the energy from but we found it. It was a life changing race for us," said Om Prakash.

There was none left at the end of the race. India won by over three seconds. Instead of slowing down, they sped up, clear of their rivals by a couple boats' length. In their foxhole on Jakabaring lake, the soldiers were drained. Bhokanal raised his hand and collapsed in exhaustion on Sawarn. Just ahead, Om Prakash fell the same way.

On the pier, they had to be helped out. Their tree trunk limbs wobbled in agony, their body shivered. On their faces was just exhilaration though. "Kal desh ka izzat khoya tha. Aaj thodi tassalli mil gayi dil ko. (Yesterday, the country lost honour because of me. Today my heart is satisfied)," said Bhokanal.