As any successful sportsperson would say, being on top is tough but staying there is tougher. For Olympic champion, Abhinav Bindra, defending the title will be a big test. While he sharpens his skills in Germany, other hopefuls too are gearing up. Saurabh Duggal, Nilankur Das & Anamika Nandedkar find out.
For Olympic champion, Abhinav Bindra, defending the title he won in Beijing four years ago will be a test of grit and patience. While it was commando training and wall climbing before Beijing, the champion is into biomechanics to control the nervous system during crunch situations. While meditation is an integral part of every top-level shooter's regimen, Bindra has taken the art a step forward by practicing a Chinese form called Tauli.
"This controls the breathing pattern in such a way that the mind-body coordination improves by almost 30 per cent. So, the shooting time gets reduced by 10-15 minutes," says Dr Amit Bhattacharjee, Bindra's long-time mental trainer. Before every mega event, Bindra shifts base to Germany and this time is no different. Following his Beijing glory, Bindra had said, "To reach the zenith, you need to do things differently."
To build the tempo, Bindra will compete at the Asian Championships in Qatar from January 11, apart from a few low-key events. The one thing the champ has shunned is monotony. His focus has shifted from co-authoring a book on shooting with his German coach to penning an autobiography, doing difficult drills to boost confidence and undergoing underwater training. But what has remained steady is his single-minded devotion to the sport.
After finishing seventh in the 2004 Athens Games, Bindra realised the importance of off-field training. "Good training alone doesn't carry you forward. I did everything to win the medal, but missed it," said Bindra after the failure. He lost the medal, but emerged wiser in Beijing.
Not for nothing, double-trap marksman, Ronjan Sodhi, is called Mr Consistent. Last year, the Delhi-based shooter achieved international glory on six occasions, including the lone gold in shooting at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. This year, his smashing form continued as he defended his World Cup Finals title and rose to the top in world rankings.
Having secured a London Olympics berth, Ronjan, who trains either at the Karni Singh Ranges or in Lonato, Italy, is hopeful of making it three in a row for Indian shooting at the mega event. "I will follow the same routine for the Games which I have followed for the last three years. Starting with the gold in 2008, I've won six medals in World Cups, and two each at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. My training regimen has paid rich dividends, so I'm not going to tamper with it," says Ronjan.
Home away from home
Italy will be his home for the better part of 2012, save for the Asian Championships in January and the World Cup at the Olympic venue in April. "But we'll only get three practice rounds there. So, for a better feel of the conditions, I'll be approaching Richard Faulds. The double-trap gold-medallist at Sydney 2000 has a personal range which is a two-hour drive from London. I'll ask him to let me train there."
Ranked No 2 in the world, Ronjan has shot an average of 142.6/150 in his last 26 international outings. So, the focus is on maintaining form. He also wants to work on mental conditioning. "Top shooters are more or less equal in terms of weapons, ammunition, coaching, etc. The only thing that catapults some to the podium is mental toughness."
The shuttler has tasted unprecedented success in the last three years, which has put her in the league of legends of the country. After the Beijing Games, where she came agonisingly close to a medal, Saina has mentioned in her interviews that her focus is on a podium finish in London. If a mediocre 2011 gave one a wrong impression, the 21-year-old's performance in December was probably a fitting reply to her critics. She reached the final of a tournament in which the cream of the world participated.
The qualification year for the sport is already halfway through and Saina has maintained her top-five position consistently, even though trophies have eluded her this season. After a title-studded 2010, she looked a little off-colour in 2011. She won the Swiss Open Grand Prix gold in March but, after that, couldn't convert her other two final appearances into success. Injuries and a tiff with the coach took a toll.
Overcoming mental barrier
In a sport ruled by the Chinese, it's important to see Saina's Olympic chances in perspective. In a normal Super Series tournament, there are as many as six Chinese shuttlers, but in the Olympics, qualification rules ensure not more than three. So for Saina, who has been on the winning side 11 out of 19 times she has faced a Chinese in the last two years, getting past them could help overcome a mental barrier.
This is not the same Saina who lost in the quarterfinals at Beijing and was inconsolable. She has now experienced pressure at the highest level and pulled off stunning victories. She still has to go through some high-profile tournaments to finetune her game before she steps on the court in London.
After winning gold in the 2009 Cadet World Championships in Ogden, USA, Deepika Kumari had said she wanted to break into the senior archery team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Not many thought she could, especially with the national squad comprising Dola Banerjee, L Bambayla Devi and Rimil Buruily, and the likes of Chekrovolu Swuro, V Pranitha and Reena Kumari waiting in the wings.
But not only did she make the CWG team, Deepika, the daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver in Ranchi, clinched gold in both the individual and team events. She also shone at the Guangzhou Asian Games where the team won its first medal. The 17-year-old, hailing from Ratu Chati village about 15km from Ranchi, has not looked back since, taking the team to greater heights.
In the absence of experienced campaigner, Dola, who has been laid low by a lower-back problem after the Asian Games, Deepika is India's best hope for an Olympic medal. "Deepika has ensured that someone like Dola has not been missed," says Purnima Mahato, the women's coach.
Consistency the key
Far from missing Dola, Deepika, along with Bambayla and Swuro, has made 2011 arguably the best year for women's archery. "Consistency has been our key," Deepika told HT from Jamshedpur.
A first-ever silver in the team event of the World Championships at Turin in July, which helped India qualify for London, sparked a dream run. They won a bronze, silver and gold in World Cups. In between, Deepika won gold at the Youth World Championships in Legnica, Poland, and an individual silver in the grand final of the Worlds.
In Guangzhou last year, a star was born. A 19-year-old from a mofussil town in Haryana became the youngest boxer to win gold at the Asian Games. The continental games were the Bhiwani-based Vikas Krishan's first outing as a senior.
This year, Vikas decided to jump two weight categories - from 60kg to 69kg - and in his maiden tournament in the new category, he created history, becoming the second Indian to win a medal in the World Championships (Olympic bronze-medallist Vijender had won bronze in the 2009 edition). The bronze in Baku not only earned him a London ticket, it also proved that the Asiad triumph was no flash in the pan. Today, Vikas is considered the country's best boxing prospect at the Olympics.
Aiming for ultimate glory
"The Asian Games and World Championship medals are steps towards achieving ultimate glory. If everything goes well, I will achieve my London dream," says Vikas.
For now, Vikas is trying to overcome the pain in his right wrist, which forced him to withdraw from the final of the Olympic test event in London. "The problem started during the World Championship but I continued competing and later went for rehabilitation. But the injury resurfaced during the test event. Since then, my wrist has improved considerably, and I've started punching slowly with my right hand. I am confident of regaining 100 per cent strength by January-end," says the 20-year-old.
Is he comfortable punching in the new weight category? "I'm very comfortable. I'll participate in a couple of tournaments before the Olympics to gain more experience."