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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Abhinav Bindra legacy on teen shoulders

Young shooters promise glory in 10m air rifle in which their inspiration won India’s only individual Olympic gold

other-sports Updated: Jun 23, 2019 22:06 IST

New Delhi
Shooter Divyansh Panwar during an interview at National Rifle Association of India office.
Shooter Divyansh Panwar during an interview at National Rifle Association of India office.(Sanjeev Verma/HT PHOTO)

Divyansh Panwar could afford to just hang out at the Karni Singh shooting range, sharing a joke with friends, or talking in hushed tones on the technique or form of the others—fellow shooters, including his roommate, who are sweating it out in the Delhi heat, under pressure at the year’s fifth selection trials.

Panwar has the luxury of skipping the ongoing trials; he is already sitting atop the domestic rankings for 10m air rifle. He is just 17, but he has been on a sensational shooting spree this year, which included bagging an Olympic quota after winning silver at the ISSF Beijing World Cup, only his second senior international competition.

But even if he were competing, Panwar would have looked as relaxed as he does now. Just ask Ravi Kumar, 29, the 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist and one of the most seasoned shooters in the country.

At the Munich World Cup in May, Ravi and Panwar shared a room and the more experienced shooter says he was ‘amazed’ at the carefree way the teenager went about his business and shot superbly for yet another silver.

“He was so chilled out,” Ravi said.” I would follow my diary (schedule) from the time I woke up till going to bed. I would come from my yoga and he would be sleeping, or, sometimes, in the evening, playing video games. I would ask him, ‘Divyansh, let’s go to the range’ and he would say, ‘just give me 5 minutes bhai,’ splash water on his face, and he was ready to shoot. I was like ‘mujhe bhi kuch sikha de (please teach me how you do this),’” he laughs.

“The lesser you think in shooting the better it is,” Panwar said. “Mental focus is very important. In some matches I feel pressure when I am lying behind in qualification and need to catch up. The score starts playing in the mind.”

Ravi, who also won a team bronze alongside Abhinav Bindra and Sanjeev Rajput at the 2014 Asian Games, follows a very different process, not unlike his mentor Bindra — a painstaking, down-to-the-minute breakdown of what to do through the day.

“I have never worked as hard as I have since January, working on a tough regimen for 12 hours daily. I don’t even use my phone, trying to bring in discipline,” said Ravi, who still trains with Bindra in Chandigarh.

“Whenever I speak to Abhinav he tells me to keep following the process. I have started enjoying it now,” he said.

In less than two years since winning nine medals across categories at the National Championships in 2017, Panwar has established himself as the man (read, boy) to beat in 10m air rifle. He has also struck great chemistry with Anjum Moudgil, the 25-year-old world No.2 in the ISSF women’s 10m air rifle rankings; the duo has now won two gold medals in mixed doubles in consecutive ISSF World Cups (Beijing and Munich), raising hopes a year before the Tokyo Olympics.

The Jaipur boy, whose father works as a nursing staff at the Sawai Man Singh Medical College, followed his elder sister Anjali into the sport in 2014, partly as a result of his parents’ efforts to wean him away from video games.

Panwar is perfectly aware of the pedigree and attention attached to the 10m air rifle in India—the event that has given the Olympic medal-starved country its only individual gold (Bindra, and also a bronze by Gagan Narang)—but he belongs to a fearless new crop of Indian shooters who are oblivious to the pressure that comes free with this history.

“I don’t think too much about such things. My coaches ask me to keep it simple, to go out there and shoot, and I just do that,” Panwar says without skipping a beat.

new star in making

This brave new crew of shooters are getting younger and younger. At the finals of the selection trials, Ravi, the 3-time national champion, was pushed to the limit by Yash Vardhan—age, 15. Ravi topped the trials with a score of 251.6 but Vardhan kept it up till the final shot, where he hit a 10,7, to finish second with 251.1.

With a qualification score of 629.2, Vardhan had cruised to the top of a mind-boggling 385-shooter field and was in all three finals (junior, youth, senior), bagging medals in all three, including gold in the youth event. He is in the reckoning for a spot on the national team for the next World Cup in August in Rio, which will offer quota places for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Vardhan’s father, Colonel Harsh Vardhan, is in the army, and the boy began to shoot when he was 13 at the army’s range in Jaipur.

He is now the country’s third best 10m air rifle shooter behind Panwar and the seasoned Deepak Kumar, 31, who won the 2018 Asian Games silver.

Ravi and Deepak are like the bridge that connects three generations—from Narang and Bindra to Panwar and Vardhan—conduits of knowledge and experience. Deepak, who finished fifth in the national trials here, is often sought after by Panwar for tips.

“We have seen phases when the score in qualification was around 615 or 620 for us,” said Deepak. “That was the time when Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang were our inspiration. Points did not go to decimals then. We polished ourselves everyday, despite limitations in coaching and facilities, and set the bar high. Now the qualification score is around 625-630.

“So when kids like Divyansh came along, they saw what we were shooting. So his target was straightway 630 because that is what they have to achieve to be at the top level.”

In shooting now, it is a happy mix of ages, competition, camaraderie, and mentorship. They may be rivals fighting for a berth in the national team, but at the end of the day, Deepak said, “it is about our shooting family. Sometimes I am a competitor, sometimes a senior, and sometimes a brother. That’s how we have been supporting each other.”

First Published: Jun 23, 2019 22:06 IST