Esha Singh rises to the challenge to clinch a magical silver
The 18-year-old had already clinched a team gold with Bhaker and Sangwan but the individual medal was the icing on the cake
Esha Singh loves to cook and dance; she is even carrying a rice cooker in Hangzhou to cook some homemade food. On Wednesday, with the heat on in the sanitised Fuyang Yinhu Sports Centre range, she conjured a perfect recipe for a medal and danced her way from mid-table to the top two to continue her fairytale rise.
That it happened in the company of Manu Bhaker, her much experienced and accomplished compatriot, also spoke of the proverbial passing of the baton between the two youngsters. As lights dimmed and spectators' galleries emptied, Bhaker quietly packed her stuff, sobbing. Two lanes to her left, Singh quietly sipped some water as coach Ronak Pandit spoke to her. It was an oddly poignant moment as two athletes, at varying stages of their careers and at diametrically opposing ends of the emotional see-saw, went about their business.
Singh, meanwhile, smiled shyly in the incandescence of the silver sheen. It was a just reward for the 18-year-old from Hyderabad who clawed her way from a joint fourth place to the eventual second in a space of 15 shots -- between the seventh and ninth series -- where she hit the target 14 times.
Having had a bad opening series where she registered only two hits, Singh roared back with a 5/5 in the third, seventh, and ninth series. No other shooter shot as many perfect series, including the eventual gold medallist Rui Liu from China who managed it twice. The 34 that Singh shot in the final equalled Rahi Sarnobat's Asian Games record but a relentless Rui finished with 38 hits from a possible 50 to reset the mark.
Having dabbled in badminton early -- her parents even took her to Pullela Gopichand who sent her back because he thought she was too young -- Singh took to shooting at the age of nine when she accompanied her father to a shooting range in Gachibowli Academy. "I think it was the crack of the shotguns that fascinated her. Gradually, she moved to pistol," Sachin, her father, said.
Once she took to pistols though, there was no looking back. Over the past couple of years, she has established herself as a worthy challenger to Bhaker, winning medals in both (10m and 25m) events and even displacing Bhaker from the 10m team.
On Wednesday, Singh showed she was ready for the big league when the match was stopped for 10 minutes after Korea's Jiin Yang complained of a missed shot in the sixth series. At that stage, Singh was in joint fourth with Bhaker. As the technical officials sorted out the issue, Singh used the time to regroup.
"That was an advantage. I like having a break during the finals. The break relaxed my muscles and helped me collect my thoughts," she said. The result was a 5/5 in the next series for Singh even as Bhaker (3/5) was eliminated and Yang, perhaps distracted by the missed shot, registered only one shot. Singh then shot a 4/5 to close the gap with Rui. The six-point deficit with the Chinese in the sixth series now stood at three points. Singh cut down another point with another perfect series but even a three-point series was enough to secure a gold for the Chinese.
Bhaker, meanwhile, was left to rue another failed Asian Games campaign. The 21-year-old topped the qualification (590) and stayed with Singh in the fourth position till the end of the sixth series, but a 3/5 in the next meant she bowed out in fifth place. It was 2018 Asiad redux for the youngster who had entered the final with a world record qualifying score but finished sixth in the final.
"At least I finished a position better than 2018," she said with a resigned smile. "The memories are just coming back. Someday, I will win a final. Hopefully, that someday is soon."
Hangzhou 2023 adds to the growing list of Bhaker's implosions in the big finals.
"There surely is a mental issue as far as finals are concerned. I wouldn't call it a failure, but there are areas that need to be worked on. We shall sit and analyse this match in the debrief," coach Pandit, who accompanied Bhaker to Tokyo Olympics where she couldn't make any of the two individual finals, said.
Earlier, the trio of Singh, Bhaker, and Rhythm Sangwan started the day with a bang, shooting the 25m team gold. The Indians shot 1759 in the final, followed by China (1756), and South Korea (1742). While the team event is not an Olympic category, it does give an ample peek into the overall health of the discipline as teams need to field three shooters.
"The fact that we have done well in team as well as individual disciplines speaks a lot about our depth and quality. Indian shooting is blessed with some amazing kids and all of us are now geared towards the Paris Olympics," said Pierre Beauchamp, the team's High Performance Director.
Singh will now accompany Divya TS and Palak in the 10m air pistol competitions leaving Bhaker with another major debacle to chew up on.