Satnam Singh went into the Asian Games as the wunderkid from Mansa, Punjab, handpicked by Olympian Swarn Singh Virk as his heir in single sculls. Satnam would go to the Youth Olympics as a prodigy and earlier this year, break the Army monopoly over the event by becoming the first from the Navy to pick the coveted national title. The buzz around his talent was enormous.
Scheduled to make a splash at Hangzhou in the double sculls, along with pedigreed Parminder Singh – son of medallist Inderpal Singh – the young duo was on course till 1700m on Sunday when Satnam felt a tightness and freeze in his neck. Suddenly his body stopped pulling the stroke, and the bewildered pair looking good for a silver till then watched other boats go past them as they finished last. Satnam needed to be carted to the hospital.
“Such a thing had never happened before. I just lost control over my body movements. The doctors said I had pulled a nerve in the neck. There was talk of replacing me in the Quadruple crew. We were medal contenders, but in a matter of seconds, all the name I’d earned for myself was reduced to nothing. I didn’t tell the physio or partner, but I was disturbed the whole time,” Satnam says of a sleepless night when he pretended to be resting behind closed eyelids but didn’t catch a wink.
On Monday, Satnam-Parminder were combines with experienced pro Sukhmeet Singh and the cool cat of this quadruples crew, Jakar Khan, a lanky man of few words who generates a lot of power despite looking a lightweight.
“A loss is different, but losing at 1700m (of a 2 km race), when you have no control over the body is a shock. In the last 300m, we watched our dreams being crushed,” recalls Parminder, a man mountain at 200 cm. He remembers watching the heart rate meter staying at 95 while he tried in vain to sleep all night, waiting breathlessly for the next morning, so they could get onto the boat and reclaim some pride and earn a medal.
“Me and Satnam told the team ki jaan bhi nikal jaaye, koi problem nahi. Medal aana chahiye. Boat se zinda tabhi niklenge agar medal milega,” Parminder, a self-confessed ‘garm khoon’, recalls.
Sukhmeet, 29, who won a medal in the same event in 2018, calmly drew out a strategy and Jakar, 25, coolly pulled his stroke, while the two hyper youngsters, both 23, put their best effort and followed the wisdom of the seniors, finishing at 6:08.61, behind China and Uzbekistan for a bounce-back bronze.
“There was the constant fear of ‘what if’ it happened again to Satnam, but we stuck to Sukhmeet’s strategy of first ensuring a medal,” Parminder says. While the young duo had attacked in the first 500m and got stuck in the end in the double sculls, Monday’s was a more conservative approach.
“Hamaari paagalpanti hoti hai and we are more aggressive, but you need all sorts in a team. But the seniors were cool- headed with strategy. We have a lot of weaknesses and much to learn, but we won’t make the mistake again next time,” he would say.
The Quadruple sculls has been India’s redeeming medal for two Asiads in a row now. In 2018 at Palembang, Om Prakash and Swarn Singh Virk in double sculls, had led till the 1000m mark before they were overtaken and reduced to fourth at the finish. They would then combine with Dattu Bhokanal, another disappointment in his individual event, and Sukhmeet Singh for a pride-saving Quadruple medal. This time too, Sukhmeet knew how to rally his crew.
While Satnam battled with the dread of his body breaking down, for Parminder it was another type of struggle. Father Inderpal won India a medal 21 years ago to this day at the Busan Asiad. “Whole of yesterday, I could see my father who’s a coach here, silently fighting back tears of disappointment. Papa toot gaye the, lekin chup the. He didn’t say anything but he was shattered. When the family standard is set, it’s more pressure. Baat izzat ki ban jaati hai,” Parminder says, adding that he was worried silly simultaneously for his best buddy Satnam.
A lot of pressure was self-inflicted. “Kal sabke medal aaye, no one said anything to us. Par sabki nazar mein disappointment thi ki humari boat khaali haath waapas aayi,” he adds. “Thankfully, Jakar is the coolest rower I know,” he said of his teammate.
Jakar comes from a family of tall farmers, fortified by hard labour, from Thoon village in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. One amongst five brothers, he grew up loving cricket, adores Virat Kohli now, and played the sport in the village. But picked at an army recruitment drive, he happily settled into Pune’s BEG Centre set-up as trainee rower.
“As farmers, we are used to hard work and waking up early and discipline. I didn’t struggle coming to Pune and getting into rowing. Personally, I don’t think of results much, I just give 101 percent to my team and country in competition,” says the 189 cm rower known as ‘Kum weight, zyada power’. He was free of pressure and knew Satnam and Parminder would deliver the goods, if they listened to Sukhmeet.
He would speak briefly to his family back home after the bronze from his first Asiad. “Not many sportsmen from my village. So whole of Thoon is celebrating this first medal for the area,” he would say. For Satnam and Parminder, carrying their own load of expectations, Jakar would offer his reassuring nod in support. Him and Sukhmeet didn’t really fuss over Satnam, remaining focused on the plan like army pros. Meticulously following the plan, a memorable medal was won, and two 23-year-olds learnt some tough lessons.