ALAPUZHA: Firozpur is a tiny speck on the Indian map. But its location is a strategic point for the country, as it shares a border with Pakistan. It was subject to much bloodshed during the post-partition riots, and therefore the people are ferociously proud of their martyrs. Here, parents push their children to join the Army, and there is at least one fauji in every house. The rejects are doomed to grind on wheat and cotton fields.
Hence, the men of Firozpur are either soldiers or farmers. But since 2010, a third class has gradually emerged — the fraternity of rowers. Almost the entire Chandigarh and Punjab rowing teams are from Firozpur. But the confounding aspect is that Firozpur has no lakes, forget rowing academies. The nearest lake is in Chandigarh, the Sukhna Lake, nearly 230km away. But in weekends, kids from the age of 10 pack their bags to row in the lake.
They are merely taking the Manjeet Singh route to success. For those born in Firozpur, Manjeet — two-time Olympian (Beijing and London) and Asian Games medallist (a brace of silvers in the Guangzhou Games)— is the template to success.
But for rowing faithfuls, his name wouldn’t ring a bell. They can’t be blamed, for rowing is still a fringe sport in the country. Until 16, Manjeet too was ignorant of the sport. He didn’t even know rowing existed before a visit to the Sukhna Lake. “I had gone there for an Army test. After it got over, I went and met a friend in Chandigarh. Together, we went for sightseeing and he took me to the lake. We went for a boat ride and somehow I fell in love with it. It was love at first sight. So I told my friend I wanted to learn rowing and he introduced me to an academy in Chandigarh,” he narrates.
Manjeet enrolled at the Academy and shifted to Chandigarh. “It was catching two birds in one stone. I could prepare for the Army tests and learn rowing. Soon, I cleared my tests and was also selected in the junior (U-19) Chandigarh team. Getting into the Army benefited my sport also, as they always encourage rowers,” he reflects.
Gradually, he rose to become among the finest in the country and secured a spot in the Beijing Olympics squad. But it was not until his silver in the 2010 Asian Games that people began to look up and notice. “The day I won silver, the whole village (Isa Panj Gurian) was thrilled and distributed sweets. I was given a very rousing welcome and they followed me from the railway station to my house. I had never eaten so many sweets my entire life compared to that day. Only soldiers who have won some award are usually accorded this welcome,” he recollects.
But more than the sweets, he was overwhelmed by the impact he had on the youth of his village and district. “There is nothing more for a sportsman than being a role model, and that too for those from villages and districts. The only time I genuinely feel proud of myself is when a rower comes and tells me that he is also from my place,” he confides.
It’s the support and adulation back home that impels him for more achievements. “We didn’t perform that well in the London Games, and were very unlucky not to be on the podium in Incheon. We lost bronze in the last 100m. But we are single-mindedly working hard to win a medal,” the 28-year-old winds up.
That must be the day Firozpur earns the right to be bracketed alongside Bhiwani, Sonepat and Sansarpur.