Suma Shirur made back-to-back trips to Tokyo in a span of months. The Paralympics 2020 was her second appearance in Japan, as the personal coach of 19-year-old Avani Lekhara. The para shooter made her coach proud with a gold in 10m Rifle Standing SH1 and bronze in t0m 3-Position, two medals in four events competed. The coach, an Olympian herself at 2004 Athens in 10m rifle for able-bodied shooters and one-time world record holder, had flown into Tokyo earlier in July 2021 as one of the coaches on the rifle shooting squad and went home without a medal in shooting.
The Paralympics 2020 squad’s return was in happier circumstances, golden moments at the shooting range included gold medals by Avani and Manish Narwal (50m Mixed Pistol SH1), the Indian anthem was played twice after the shooting champs received their medals. Founder of the Lakshya Shooting Club in Panvel near Mumbai, Suma experienced delight when Jaipur-based student, Avani, carried the tricolour at the closing ceremony, an honour for para shooting which earned two golds, one silver and two bronzes.
Excerpts from a chat with the coach on the journey with a brave teenager, who overcame the horror of a car accident earlier to get on with life in a wheelchair and make the nation proud.
Performance by Avani Lekhara in the 10m rifle started off the medal hunt. Your thoughts on India show at Tokyo….
The 10m rifle is always the first event in shooting. A good show by the rifle shooters creates a wave of confidence in other shooters to follow. The gold medal by Avani, equalling a world record, had an impact. Everyone was on a high, the Indian team was on a high. It is a beautiful feeling, one competitor has done it, and so it lifts the morale in the others. They know it (winning a medal) can be done by them too. The first medal makes a difference. Like the Olympics for able-bodied shooters, the Paralympics is as high as it can get. Competitively, the World Championships has more countries taking part, at the Olympics or the Paralympics, pressure is of a different kind. With a nation watching, waiting for a medal, there is the pressure of expectations, which develops over time in the run-up to the Games, knowing that the public is tuned in. To qualify is a high point, to go out there, handle the pressure and come out with your best performance is creditable.
Medals were won by Indian shooters in rifle and pistol, including two gold medals by debutants (Avani Lekhara in rifle and Manish Narwal in pistol at Paralympics 2020…
As far as the Para Games are concerned, India has never even got a quota place (qualifying place). From a one-off shooter earlier, who I believe was a wildcard, 10 Indians had qualified for Tokyo, which in itself is unique. This feeling for me is like 2004 Athens Olympic Games when in shooting, India had so many qualifiers at the same time (Suma Shirur advanced to the 10m air rifle final on debut). My link with para shooting was because of Avani Lekhara as her personal coach. I was also the rifle coach for the team. Prior to Tokyo, at a camp for the shooters, I noticed that the feeling across those present was positive, even among the first-timers. They were not going to participate, but to win. When we returned to the Olympic Village with the 10m gold by Avani, the emotions among Indians we came across had changed. Each one seemed determined to do their best (she added to the tally with a bronze in the 50m 3 Position).
Avani chosen as India’s flag bearer for the Tokyo closing ceremony is an honour for the athlete and her sport….
I felt so proud, felt as part of the journey with her. The journey was unexpected, never thought in my wildest dream that a shooter you trained will be crowned the champion in her first event at the Paralympics, then a second medal and be chosen to carry the flag. I had never been part of a closing ceremony, because shooting got over earlier and we left the Games for home, nor the opening ceremony because our events were scheduled very close to the start.
GOLD IT IS! As a coach couldn’t have been any more proud of @AvaniLekhara and her performance today! India’s first woman to win a gold medal at Olympics or #Paralympics & with a world record. Surely more to come from her in the future too! #Praise4Para@ParalympicIndia @Tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/LJMC1wambf— Suma Shirur OLY (@SumaShirur) August 30, 2021
After the medal double by Avani, did Tokyo appear brighter than when you came here as High-Performance rifle coach for the 2020 Olympics?
I am so glad that I came back here (for the Paralympics) and will return on a positive note. I needed this and it has given me the energy to look ahead and plan for the next three years (2024 Olympics in Paris).
Like the para shooter, even the Olympic shooters faced the heat of competition. Going by Tokyo performances by the able-bodied shooters, what held us back?
A lot of expectations definitely, the dynamics were completely different (for the Olympic shooters). We are working on it, trying to find out what needs to be done here and there, soon will be ready to perform. It would be wrong on my part to make a comment. I would say there is something we did right, otherwise India would not have numerous shooters of such a high level (qualifying for Tokyo 2020).
Can you explain the difference between para shooting and normal shooting?
In para shooting, there are a lot of other aspects coming into play. The body is not prepared, unlike in an Olympic shooter where the lower body is the base and everything is sitting on the lower body. When you don’t have a functional lower body, it is about adapting the entire game of shooting on your upper body. It was a slow ride initially, until I figured out the weak points in her body and then together, we got on with it.
Competitive sport, especially shooting, boils down to the mind game at the world level….
The mind is very powerful, having gone through so much in life, Avani was a bundle of nerves, self-doubt. Initially there was a lot of negativity, slowly as she got technically better, the mind also cleared up. Towards the end, it was about working with her self-belief.
What does a Paralympics gold mean for you as coach… in terms of your student Avani making her debut appearance?
The gold medal has a special place, whether for the able-bodied or para shooters. It is the goal of every competitor and achieving that here is wonderful for Avani. It is the outcome of our work together since 2018. Being with her and for her through the ups and downs, the gold is very satisfying. She wanted me to be here with her in Tokyo. I wanted to be with her at the final stage and be sure to make it happen. I could not have asked for more.
Did you need to make adjustments, technical and mental, as much as her when taking up the task?
Coaching Avani has been a demanding task, something I had not done before. I have the knowledge, experience, expertise to work with able-bodied shooters. I have done that all my life, post-retirement from competing. To implement all that when working with a para shooter was challenging, it took me a while to accept the assignment.
Can you elaborate on the adjustments needed from you as coach?
Avani’s father approached me in 2017, I was not ready, and then again in 2018 when he approached me again, I decided to take a look at her (as a shooter), take a session, and decide. After I met her, I realised that she was so adorable. I just fell in love with her and kind of regret why I didn’t say yes (to coaching her) before. From then on, it has been a challenge to implement the scientific way of shooting on a para-athlete. You have to be technically very sound to be able to do it, under pressure. I like the experience, challenging though it has been.
Abhinav Bindra is supposed to be her inspiration to excel in shooting. She chose the right achiever…
Having a gold medallist in the rifle event, it definitely helps to know it he did it, so it can be done by her. Everyone needs inspiration, Avani chose the right one.
As the training partner before Athens 2004 with Abhinav Bindra, what quality about him struck you as unforgettable?
Attention to detail is the quality Abhinav Bindra is remembered for. Every athlete is different, as a coach I have to first understand the shooter first and decide what suits the person, based on the temperament. Abhinav’s style is not such that every aspiring shooter can absorb, it is very particular to him.
The Toko Games medallists are still in celebration mode …. Any thoughts on the appreciation showered on the winners?
I must say that the interaction of our Prime Minister with our athletes has given them a big boost. I am referring to the entire Olympic and the Paralympic movement. It made people stand up and take notice, show their appreciation a bit more. It is very important, especially for a para-athlete.