Aditi Gopichand Swami and Ojas Pravin Deotale marshalled India to a historic feat at the Games and crafted a legend for ages. The architect of these young world champions is Pravin Sawant—the weaver of dreams at his academy.
"I was a player myself. Mera dream tha India represent karna (I had dreamt of representing India). However, poverty and lack of resources ruined my dreams," Sawant told The Bridge over a phone call.
Despite producing some remarkable talent for India archery, Sawant recapitulated his achievement as "Zada Kuch Khas nahi" (nothing special) numerous times during our conversation, dismissing it with a small laugh when the magnitude of his work is acknowledged.
From Beijing to Hangzhou
It was in the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Sawant watched archery for the first time. He was captivated by the bow and arrow at the first glance itself. "I come from a small village and used to throw stones to hanging fruits from the trees while loitering around the place and then I came across archery in the Beijing Olympics," Sawant asserted.
But what made him pursue archery was the acute familiarity of pulling the arrow with throwing. "It felt surreal to watch it. I realized I can also do this. And that’s when it all started," he added.
But it was not an easy passion to savour for Sawant. Hailing from Satara, Maharashtra, his humble background appeared to be the biggest stumbling block. His mother used to work in fields as a daily labourer, and his father worked as a construction worker, building homes. But they lacked one for themselves. "I have lived and breathed through poverty all my life," Sawant said. But he never allowed it to crush his dream; he used it as a fuel to boost his burning desire instead.
Sawant worked as a ward boy at an orthopedic hospital to support his family and his dream to represent India. "I used to travel to Wai, which is 45 km from Satara, to practice after finishing my night shifts as a ward boy. I joined the police force under sports quota. I got the job due to the national medal. The first thing I did after getting the job was build a house where my parents live today," said Sawant.
He went on to play for the All India Police Force for five years. "I bought some good compound equipment after I joined the police force to practice but age was not on my side," he lamented.
From Player to a Coach
"I don't really remember when this transition from a player to a coach happened," Sawant recalled with a pause, trying to join the dots of his journey. "I have always been teaching children in my village with whatever little time I had," he noted.
Initially, Sawant used to impart training to young children in a Satara stadium. It was during this phase of his life he unearthed a ten-year-old archery prodigy in Aditi Gopichand. “Initially, I thought ye kitni nazook h, keech paeyegi ki nahi (she was so feeble. So I thought if she would be able to pull the arrow)," Sawant asked as she recalled his first meeting with Aditi.
“I asked her father to wait for 10-15 days to know whether we can take her in or not. But she used to pick up whatever I taught her quickly. And with constant practice, she became unstoppable," stressed Sawant.
But, for Sawant, the struggle to keep his passion alive for archery got riddled with troubles appearing before him in new shapes. "My village is 16 km from Satara. So, travelling back and forth was difficult. That’s when my friend Mahendra Kadam gifted me with a piece of land," said Sawant. But as he said during the interview, "God was watching me struggling".
Help arrived, not on a platter but on a Sugarcane farm. "We started an academy on a sugarcane farm. My whole family was involved in making this academy. Since my father knew how to build a house, it was the time he thought we put the expertise to build our own dreams," Sawant observed.
The enterprise of the academy was not to make money but to make future champions for India. "And from this very ground, we won five medals at the Asian games," Sawant said, with pride oozing in his words.
Sawant was a student before he became a teacher of archery. "I used to do it practically first and used to learn techniques myself and then pass it on to my students," he said. Sawant, however, doesn't have any certificate from any institution that would entitle him as a coach - as per the official record that Indian government maintains.
"I never had any qualifications nor did I have a NIS degree. Only recently I did an NIS course for six weeks because it was mandatory," Sawant said.
Pravin Sawant is a pragmatic person. He knows how to navigate the complexities of sports in India, having been a part of the scrum of players. "I knew we needed a platform to train kids and an official name to get recognition".
He explicitly draws attention to his wife, whom he considers as his lucky charm. "She supports me and takes care of the academy when I am out on tours. She has helped me with the registration of our Drushti academy.” And that's how the dream academy came into existence.
Nation comes first
The resolute wish to do something for India has always been a constant companion of Sawant. He carries his love for the nation on his sleeves. Sawant stressed that his inspiration to join the police force and practice archery was made of the same substance: India.
"Ever since I joined the police force, I had a feeling lingering in the back of my mind that I want to do something for the nation. And when I went to the Games I just knew Kuch to Karna hai India ke liye (something has to be done for India)," remarked Sawant.
We all have heard about Dhoni prioritizing the nation ahead of his duty being a father at the 2015 World Cup. Well, Pravin Sawant pulled one such example ahead of the Asian Games.
"It was a difficult time for me and my family. My wife was pregnant and had a delivery date scheduled for September 28 and the team was supposed to leave on the 27th. I was disturbed because I wanted to be there for my wife during this time," Sawant said.
The doctor informed Sawant in the last sonography that there was something wrong with the baby. "They had to do an impromptu delivery. I took a leave and came back but left just two days after the birth of the baby for the camp because India was calling," uttered Sawant. Sawant took his new born baby to the shooting range soon after returning home, with India Jersey and history on his shoulders.
Sawant observed the moment closely when shuttler Satwiksairaj Rankireddy laid down to give an ode to his guru Pullela Gopichand at the Asian Games after winning a historic badminton gold medal for India in partnership with Chirag Shetty. And that moment is etched in his memory not as a tale to reminisce about later but as a goal.
“I want to be a coach like Gopichand. We already have a facility but obviously, it will be better to catalyze the whole process. There has been aid from the government, but I hope help arrives much faster now since we have proved our worth in gold," Sawant ended with a sigh.
Pravin Sawant has dared to dream and fulfilled it in five medals and 52 seconds of the national anthem echoed in Hangzhou, China. He wants to craft a wider tale of shared story and common bow that targets the love for archery across India.