Rower Balraj aims for India's best finish at Olympics

Mental toughness will play a big role if he wishes to surpass the best show by Indian rowers at the Olympics.
Rower Balraj Panwar
Rower Balraj Panwar

CHENNAI: If being the lone entry from the country was not enough, Balraj Panwar will find himself all alone on his boat when the rowing competition starts at the Paris Olympics on July 27. Qualifying for the Games in the single sculls, the rower from Haryana knows the challenges that will be thrown at him at the Vaires-sur-Marne Nautical Stadium will be immense.

Mental toughness will play a big role if he wishes to surpass the best show by Indian rowers at the Olympics. For the record, Arvind Singh and Arjun Lal Jat's 11th-placed finish in the lightweight men's double sculls in Tokyo has been the best show by Indian rowers in the Games' history.

"In other rowing events, you have a partner to discuss things and chalk out strategies as per the changing scenario but that's not the case in single sculls. Mental fortitude comes into play here. Self-motivation becomes important," Balraj told journalists on Thursday during a virtual media interaction organised jointly by the Sports Authority of India, the India Olympic Association and the Rowing Federation of India.

Having started rowing only in 2020, Balraj narrowly missed bronze at the Asian Games last year finishing fourth. The experience, however, made him wiser as apart from propelling his boat with oars during training sessions at the Army Rowing Node in Pune, he is also working with a psychologist to stay in a better frame of mind.

"Twice or thrice a week, I have classes with the psychologist. It will stand me in good stead during the competition. Besides, the experience at the Asian Games has taught me how to compete at the big international events," he added.

Indian rowers have been participating in the Olympics since 2000 with single scullers competing regularly since the 2004 Athens Games with Tokyo being the only exception. Dattu Bhokanal has been the best among them with the 13th-place finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Balraj looks to change that as his goal this Olympics will be to qualify for the semifinals. "I aim to give India its best finish in the Olympics by reaching the semifinals in the single sculls."

The rower will reach France 20 days before the competition to get acclimatised to the weather. "I will train at a club in France. It will be of great help. Acclimatising to weather is one such benefit." Balraj, who is a sepoy with the Indian Army, is training with three rowers at the ARN at the moment. One of them, Salman Khan, will accompany him to the Games. "I will train with Salman there to get ready for the competition."

Despite him qualifying for the world's biggest sporting extravaganza, he admits without hesitation that he is still a work in progress and needs improve a lot on technical aspects of the game. "Speed and endurance come through practice but I still have to work a lot on technical aspects. A lot needed to be improved."

Hailing from Karnal, Balraj lost his father when he was 11. His mother Kamla Devi worked at a garment factory to make sure the family comprising six children (four daughters and two sons) got food and basic education. Once he was recruited by the Army, he started taking care of his family's expenses.

With only a little more than a month remaining for him to become an Olympian, Balraj's fellow villagers still cannot believe what he has achieved so far and the more he is going to earn. "Nobody in my village can believe that one among them is going to represent the country at the Olympics," said Balraj with a smile.

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