Rowing is one of those sports that have always struggled to capture the imagination of the common people in India. Not only that, newspapers often find it tricky to accommodate adequate space for this sport. The history of rowing in India is strong with the first clubs starting around the late 1800s, validating the still active Calcutta Rowing Club as one of the oldest in the world.
It was first introduced in the 1992 Delhi Asiad and although India kept winning bronze medals in the Asian Games, the sport first came to prominence after Bajrang Lal Takhar won the country’s first individual gold medal in Guangzhou six years back. But rowing made its presence felt in the 2006 Doha Asian Games, where India won three medals – two silvers and one bronze.
Although India has improved over the years, international success has been rare. With no substantial achievements to show in terms of performances at the Olympics and with awareness for the sport being low, it is no surprise that Mayurakshi Mukherjee has never been given the credit she deserves.
While the sport has seen an upward curve in the country lately, the Kolkata girl has been at the forefront of this rise towards prominence. Born in Kolkata, Mayurakshi’s baby steps towards rowing came en-route her passion for other sports. A former national karate champion, her initial love for basketball and swimming slowly faded and love for rowing started after seeing national-level rowers compete at the Bengal Rowing Club. Speaking exclusively to The Logical Indian, she said, “I was involved in karate, swimming, and basketball during my school days at South Point. As soon as I took up rowing, my interest grew and I haven’t looked back since.”
Mayurakshi, who is currently studying engineering at the Heritage Institute of Technology, recently became the first girl from Bengal to bring home an international rowing medal after 30 years. “I barely had any international experience under my belt leading up to the Asian Championships. But I was very confident of performing well.”
India bagged 12 medals in total at the Asian Indoor Rowing Championships out of which the 19-year old won a silver in th Open Mixed Four category and a bronze in Women’s Doubles. Hosts Thailand won the 500m race followed by India and Korea who both managed a timing of 1 minute and 33 seconds. In the 2kms race, India was neck-to-neck with Chinese Taipei for the first 1000m but finished with a bronze after Korea and Taipei finished ahead of Mayurakshi. “It was a very close finish. We had a timing of 7 minutes and 38 seconds. A few seconds less could have earned us a gold medal,” she added.
When she decided to begin her journey to become India’s future medal winner in rowing, there was no given path that she could emulate. So she created her own, which was to follow the words of her role model and coach Sudip Naha.
“The main problem in rowing is that while the kids pick up the sport at a young age, they are forced to quit because of parental pressure on education. But that was never the case for Mayurakshi. She knows how to balance her academics with rowing and that is what sets her apart,” said the proud coach. A former rower himself, Sudip, has trained Mayurakshi ever since she started and has followed her from close quarters all these years.
He added, “Another problem which young rowers of the country face is the lack of accessibility, as a result of which they end up leaving the sport. But her father, an engineer, and mother, a botany teacher have supported her in every possible way. And she has never disappointed them. Mr. Mukherjee bought her a set of equipment from his own pocket, and if I am not wrong, it amounts close to Rs. 1 lac.”
Her name might not be a household one, but the 19-year old’s performances on the international stage have made everyone in the Indian rowing circuit take notice.
For us to compete with the likes of England, New Zealand, and the USA in rowing, we need to start competing at the youth level like we do in cricket. She said, “We need proper facilities, we need world-class equipment. The boat we use here is much heavier than what it is supposed to be. The government support is clearly lacking.”
Challenges seemed to be at every corner of her life but Mayurakshi was never bothered about it. She added, “Rowing has big injury risks for the lower back, ribs, and knee. So that is why the technique is very important. So the better technique you have, the better you will perform. Stamina and physical endurance are obviously important factors.”
What are her upcoming plans? “Right now, I will start preparing for the Senior Nationals which is the selection trials for the Asian Games. The World Championships and Tokyo Olympics are my long-term targets,” she said excitedly. Regardless of her results, this year, her performance in Thailand has boosted India’s chances of winning an Olympic medal in the most unlikeliest of sports in the near future.
The Asian Games and World Championships are both scheduled prior to the Tokyo Olympics. She has earmarked those events as a yardstick for her development. Her success in Thailand has also sparked a revolution of sorts in the Bengal rowing circuit. It remains to be seen whether the government is willing to spend more on creating infrastructure.
“Times are changing and I believe rowing will be recognized as a mainstream sport one day,” she concluded.