Salam Sunil Singh, son of a fisherman, and Arjun Singh, born to a factory worker, grew up 2000km apart from each other. But there is a binding thread – an unending passion for water sports unhindered by their difficult formative years. The 24-year-old Sunil from Moirang, Manipur, and the 16-year-old Arjun, who grew up in Roorkee, combined that passion to land India a bronze medal in men's double canoe 1000m event at the Hangzhou Asian Games on Tuesday, a first for the country since the 1994 event. (Live Blog | Medal Tally | Schedule | Full Coverage | Sports News)
The duo clocked 3:53.329 seconds to finish third here. In the 1994 Hiroshima edition, India had bagged a bronze in the same event through Siji Sadanandan and Johnny Rommel.
For Sunil and Arjun, the medal was the culmination of the hard work they had put in despite the crushing odds in their lives.
"My father (Iboyaima Singh) is a fisherman and every morning and evening he would row his boat out and catch fishes at the Loktak Lake and that is our family's source of income. My mother (Binita Devi) is just a homemaker," Sunil told PTI after winning the bronze in Hangzhou.
"When I started it was very difficult as the boat and other equipment cost a lot. One pedal costs a minimum of Rs 40,000 and a boat costs Rs 4-5 lakh.
"Initially, my family and relatives chipped in to finance me but after I joined the Indian Army in 2017, I was able to manage myself," said Sunil, who is now a havildar in the Army.
Sunil's passion for water is inherent as he was born and brought up near the Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater body in Northeast India, and it also houses the famous Keibul Lamjao National Park.
Sunil took his first canoeing lessons at the water sports training complex near the lake. He shifted to Hyderabad in 2013 on the advice of his aunt who is also a canoe coach.
In 2015, he got selected for the national camp and he became the national champion next year.
He then trained at the Roorkee Army centre but polished his skills at the Bhopal SAI Centre under Pijush Baroi, who is the men's coach.
Many congratulations to our Arjun Singh and Sunil Singh Salam on winning the #BronzeMedal in the Men’s canoe double 1000m sprint event.— Team India (@WeAreTeamIndia) October 3, 2023
Let’s #Cheer4india 🇮🇳 #WeAreTeamIndia | #IndiaAtAG22pic.twitter.com/C25O3aBZH5
Arjun was also in Roorkee before shifting to Bhopal recently on the advice of Borai. They paired up for the first time a few months ahead of the Canoe Sprint World Championships in Germany in August, where they reached the final and finished ninth.
Arjun's family is from Bagpat, Uttar Pradesh, but later they shifted to Roorkee.
Arjun too trains at the SAI, Bhopal but that has not made him forget the tough days when his family struggled to make both ends meet.
"My father is no more and my mother works at a medicine manufacturing factory in Roorkee and earns Rs 8000 to Rs 10000 a month.
"We live in a rented house. It was very difficult with that meagre income. My mother suffered a lot," said Arjun.
"It is a little better now since I am at the Bhopal SAI Centre where I am very well taken care of," said Arjun, a class 12 student.
But Arjun will forever be indebted to his uncle, Ajit Singh for that change in life.
Ajit, a national and international canoer, asked Arjun to shift to Roorkee along with his family in 2017 to train there at the Army Node. Arjun was 12 then.
Arjun was also at Jagatpur SAI Centre in Odisha for a brief period in 2022 before coming to Bhopal earlier this year.
"I have been fascinated with water sports since childhood. My uncle encouraged me a lot. I became so passionate about water sports that I often dream of my competitions. Even yesterday (in Hangzhou), I was competing in my dreams and winning a medal," said Arjun.
The youngster idolises Martin Fuksa of Czech Republic, the reigning world champion in canoe single 1000m event.
But Arjun now has a bigger target ahead of him – Paris Olympics.
"Paris Olympics is my target and we will do our best to get there," he said.
But it is easier said than done as the pair of Arjun and Sunil, according to Baroi, will have to finish second in the Olympics qualification event to be held in Paris in April next year.
"Let's see what happens there," Baroi said.
But hope in his voice is unmistakable.