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Stage Fright, What’s That? India’s Fresh-Faced Shooters Leave Indelible Mark at Asian Games

They’re all teenagers but completely contrasting characters. However, two things unite them – the hunger to win, not just participate, and the cloak of confidence they wear while competing at the big stage.

Suprita Das | News18 Sports

Updated:August 27, 2018, 1:47 PM IST
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Stage Fright, What’s That? India’s Fresh-Faced Shooters Leave Indelible Mark at Asian Games
(Image: AP)

They’re all teenagers but completely contrasting characters. However, two things unite them – the hunger to win, not just participate, and the cloak of confidence they wear while competing at the big stage.

Saurabh Chaudhary (Gold, 10m Air Pistol) is the intense kind. He became only the fifth Indian shooter to win an Asiad gold, but however hard you tried, you would’ve failed to spot the slightest smile on the 16 year old’s face after his achievement. In his village in Kalina near Meerut, Chaudhary’s friends say he barely knows any neighbours, and even the cows in the area make more noise than him.

Chaudhary’s priorities are clear. In his tiny room, he has mounted a makeshift target on one of the walls to get more practice, and by now has managed to damage the entire wall area around the target. That’s nothing if you consider that he decided to stop going to school after seventh standard so that he could give all his time to shooting, causing much paranoia at home.

Shardul Vihan (Silver, Double Trap) goes to school, to the shooting range, of course, and even to his father’s farm in Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, when he has the time. When he’s not blowing up the clay birds at the range, Vihan is slaying enemies on his phone or computer screen in a game called PUB-G.

While Chaudhary sports a moustache that adds to his overall serious demeanour, Vihan, so far, has just a few wisps of facial hair to boast of. His chubby cheeks make him the darling of the shotgun gang. It doesn’t matter if everybody else in the field is at least double his age if not more, Vihan plays it cool always. As his coach, Anwer Sultan, the former Olympian, says, Vihan is a natural, and is blessed with tremendous hand-eye co-ordination.

Lakshya Sheoran (Silver, Trap), 19, is Vihan’s partner in crime when it comes to PUB-G sessions, even if it’s late-ish into the night before their finals.

“You can hear them screaming, and have to tell them they have a final tomorrow,” says former shooter Mansher Singh, also the shotgun squad’s manager in Indonesia. For the veteran, sharing the same floor with teenagers, was no less challenging than any top international competition he shot in, he says.

There are of course, plenty of them managing their school books and guns, with such amazing success and confidence that it makes Abhinav Bindra call himself a “sissy” when he was their age. Like 16 year old pistol shooter Manu Bhaker who will learn tremendously from her medal-less Asiad experience. Like 17 year old rifle champ Mehuli Ghosh, whose coach, Olympian Joydeep Karmakar, has more than just shooting to teach her. Like 18 year old Elavenil Valarival, the junior world record holder who’s honing her skills at Olympic bronze medallist Gagan Narang’s academy in Pune.

The depth and quality of Indian shooting is tremendous, and the National Rifle Association of India deserves ample credit for a robust junior development programme that is the biggest cause for this success.

“It’s taken us three years to build a strong junior programme and direct half of our funding that we get from the government, towards it,” says NRAI President Raninder Singh. “Now we have specialised foreign coach for each discipline, better technical back up, and more structured national camps.”

The federation deserves a pat on the back for having convinced the previous government to amend the arms licensing rules so that shooters above the age of 12 could have their own fire arms license.

A big part of the junior development programme has been to involve the best of India’s former shooters to work with the current lot. There could not have been a better man than Jaspal Rana to work with the young pistol shooters. Similarly, there’s the likes of Joydeep Karmakar, Suma Shirur, Mansher Singh, Deepali Deshpande, who are all into coaching.

“I think it’s the first time in our sport that so many noted shooters have got into coaching,” says 2008 Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra. “It’s a sign that the NRAI believes in long term investment. Bench strength is key in any sport, and in shooting we certainly have a very strong one.”

Former shooter, now selector, Moraad Ali Khan, also gives credit to government initiatives like Khelo India programme that encourages more parents to push their children into shooting.

“The children who are being marked under the programme will be getting `5 lakh for 8 years,” he says. “When there’s a long-term commitment like that, chances of children dropping out are much lesser.”

For India’s young shooters, there’s no time to rest. Some have academics to catch up with between tours. Young Shardul Vihan even has to look for a new event to shoot in given that Double Trap is no longer part of the Olympic programme. But more than anything else, there’s the World Championships in Changwon, South Korea, that’s snapping at everyone’s heels. While the competition Asia offers is as good as a world championship, there will be shooters from other countries also to fight against soon.

Sport can’t be scripted, and medals can’t be guaranteed. There will be losses, and dip in form too. However, it would be safe to say that India’s young shooters are better equipped than ever before to learn from those losses and prepare for the holy grail - the Olympics in two years.

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| Edited by: Suyash Upadhyaya
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