The Olympics are usually filled with stories of grit, endurance, professionalism, sportsmanship and inspiration. Every four years, the athletes and their sacrifices never fail to impress. I love the Olympics, not just for the love of sports, but also for these stories. There are six such stories from the Rio Olympics this year that have touched my heart.
Dattu Bhokanal: Dattu Bhokanal is an Indian Rower. I did not know of his background before, I just knew that he is an Army Officer. Yesterday, a woman on Facebook posted his story and it became viral. Now it is on Twitter as well. Dattu Bhokanal comes from a very poor family; his village is located in one of the worst drought-stricken areas of Maharashtra. Farmer suicides and 45 degree temperatures are a regular feature there. His father was a well digger and that was the extent of water he had seen. Water scared him. But suddenly his father passed away and he became the sole bread winner of his family. He had to move out of the village in search of a job and ended up joining the Army. An officer there thought he had the perfect build for rowing and encouraged him.
Despite being afraid of water, Dattu gritted his teeth and began rowing, with the thought that promotions and monetary rewards would help him provide for his family in a better way. Four years of training led him to qualifying for the Olympics, him being the sole Indian challenge in the sport. He had not even heard of the Olympics before, and here he was, competing at the biggest sports extravaganza. He qualified for the quarterfinals but lost out from there. But that’s ok. He made a huge sacrifice in coming to Rio, competing thousands of miles away, while his mother is lying in a hospital bed in Pune, paralyzed after a fall, and she doesn’t even know what he has achieved.
He may not have won the medal for us, but he has won our hearts. With his background, it’s truly amazing that he even qualified to compete at the Olympics in the first place, and then rowing his heart out there, knowing of his mother’s ill health and not showing that struggle on his face, that’s what being a true Olympian means. And, he would have to drop everything to serve the people in times of need because he is an Army officer. He wouldn’t even think twice about it. His story tugs on my heart-strings, he is so inspiring.
Dipa Karmakar: Dipa Karmakar is the first Indian female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics. She is also the first Indian gymnast, male or female, to qualify in the Olympics after 52 years. She too comes from a humble background. She was flat footed as a child; it is her coach who trained her real hard to get the curve as it is better for balance. She trained as hard as she could and she has reached the vaults finals. The final will take place very close to our Independence Day, and whether she wins the medal or not, we will always be proud of her for achieving something no Indian woman has ever achieved before.
Michael Phelps: He is a legend, he is a machine, he is insane, and he is Michael Phelps. He has individually won more gold medals than a lot of countries collectively have won. 21 golds so far, the next records for most gold medals is 9, by Larissa latynina, a Gymnast. The gap between the two being extra-ordinary. I was a big fan of his since the Athens Olympics in 2004, his grit, his talent, his discipline, everything inspired me. He is always a real pleasure to watch when he plunges into the pool. But after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and more so after the 2002 London Olympics, I could see that he was becoming arrogant, he was getting rapped for DUIs, not something you would expect of an Olympian. Though I felt sad too that he was retiring, I also felt a bit weird as I was used to idolizing Roger Federer, someone who has never indulged in such things. But that wasn’t the entire story.
Just as the Rio Olympics began, I was excited to see Phelps make a comeback. The fan in me wanted him to win even more. I slept at insane hours and woke up at insane hours just to see him swim. That is when I came across a video about him. What I saw was a complete different picture of him and by the end of the video, my perspective completely changed.
Abandoned by his father when he was just nine and diagnosed with ADHD, he got into swimming by chance as he had accompanied his sister once and swimming was the one thing that helped him vent out his feelings about his father. His coach from his early years, Bob Bowman, has been with him all through these years till date and is a father figure. He usually trains very, very hard and he is much disciplined when it comes to swimming.
After the 2012 Olympics, he had hit rock bottom. He kept getting bored, he freaked out from his newly found independence from rigorous training and gained weight. He lost focus in his life. In 2014, a certain professional Basketball player, who was his friend, presented him with a book to help him. He checked himself into rehab and followed the book. He said it changed his perspective towards life. As soon as he got out of the rehab, he called his coach and said he wanted to swim at the Rio Olympics two years later. His coach said that it wouldn’t be possible to train to that level in two years. But he did not give up and trained rigorously for two years and succeeded in qualifying for the Olympics. He had also gotten back and proposed to his girlfriend just 3 days after getting out of rehab. On 5th May 2016, he became a father to a baby boy, naming him Boomer.
This year, he came determined to succeed, he has already won 3 Golds, his 21st overall Gold medal. During his 200m butterfly final, his rivalry with the South African swimmer Chad Le Clos came to the fore. A day earlier Le Clos had tried to play mind games by shadowboxing right in front of Phelps, while Phelps gave him a death stare. The very next day, Phelps outsmarted him; he let his swimming do the talking, and won the Gold, while Le Clos was so obsessed with Phelps that he could not even get a podium finish. Though the most beautiful moment came during the presentation ceremony, when Phelps went to where his family was standing, he kissed and cuddled his baby while his mother stroked his hair, while in tears.
The point is, we all mess up our lives, several times. But what really matters is how we realize and admit our follies, and rise up from them and rectify those wrong choices. That is what Phelps has done. He turned his life around for the better and he is already out there achieving his dreams, again. It’s truly remarkable.
The Refugee Olympic Team: This year, the IOC created a special team, comprising of the few very talented refugee athletes who have no home to call their own. All the athletes in this team have gone through very adverse circumstances, but they are trying to rebuild their lives by participating in the Olympics. Most notably, there is a swimmer, Yusra Mardini, who was fleeing Syria with her sister, when the motor of the boat they were in stopped working. She along with her sister and a couple of people, who could swim, swam and pushed the boat for three hours to reach Lesbos.
Yusra qualified for semifinals and finals of a few swimming events but so far has not earned a medal. But what is so inspiring about her is that she has overcome several odds to reach where she has today.
Simone Biles: Simone Biles is an African-American gymnast who has won several Golds already at Rio. Her mother was an alcoholic and a drug addict and couldn’t care for her or her siblings. She was adopted by her grandparents and they encouraged her into getting into gymnastics. She is just 4’8” in height, which I personally find even more inspiring as I am of a short stature and I admire how short people succeed so much.
Kristin Armstrong: This amazing cyclist won the Gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And then she retired; she wanted a family. Her son was born in 2010, which motivated her again to get into cycling and prepare for the 2012 Olympics. Her dream was to have her son Lucas, be with her on the podium. And she did it, she got the Gold and little Lucas joined her on the podium. And as if that wasn’t enough, she competed in the Rio Olympics and won her 3rd Gold in a row, this time a 6 year old Lucas joining her on the podium. This is an amazing story of a mother’s love for her child motivating her into doing the extra-ordinary.
And there are many, many more such stories that I am reading each and every day. I am enjoying watching the Olympics, sacrificing my sleep for them. But these are the stories that really get me going. My utmost respect goes out to each and every Olympian there. Their exemplary achievements are what legends are made of. There are 10 more days till the curtains are drawn over the 2016 Olympics; and many more stories are waiting to emerge.