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They call it the chrysalis stage of a butterfly’s metamorphosis. It’s that point in time when a dazzling future is imminent, but the take-off still moments away. A lot might be happening inside the silken shell, though the world sees quiescence. Countries – even mammoth ones like India – live through these epochs of a silent surge. Think back to how cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma trained himself to sit still in spacecraft simulations so that the high accelerations wouldn’t cause a weight shift, before he made history as the first Indian in space. Peer back into the time when Avtar Singh Cheema finally ascended the SE Ridge of Everest after bad weather had twice packed off him and his men – 700 and 400 agonising metres from the pinnacle. These path-breaking feats which were culminations of some very inspiring careers would also be the first tentative steps for the country in their respective precincts. Recall the time when Indians decided to tame and channel the rousing Mahanadi by building the Hirakud dam, or when Goan musicians created the first strains of our jazz music coming to Bombay each night at Marine Lines’ Alfreds, playing their saxophones.
Go further back a century to when Sushila Sundari, an accomplished gymnast and trapeze artist in the Great Bengal Circus of 1890s brought the crowd to its feet by arm-wrestling with tigers. Or fast-forward to the late 80s when the dial-up at IIT Kanpur cost lakhs, so the pioneers of email in India would send emails by courier, writing them on floppies, while still grappling with last mile connectivity. Those were giddy days of early development – where the first small steps were taken in with a whoop and cheer. Now think Indian athletes – and you have the same epoch of sporting chrysalis over the last decade. While the country’s glorious hockey past and a continuing throbbing cricket future bookend the entire narrative of Indian sport, it is in individual sports as varied as shooting, wrestling, boxing, badminton, tennis, gymnastics, rowing and fencing that the country is on the brink of take-off, as the winds are caught in the gliders. India is nowhere among the top-contenders for leading Olympic tables yet; we still audit Olympics with collective gasping and grunting and grudging over our single-digit frivolous returns every four years. But, the last decade and half has been a time of a cheerful but choppy churn in Indian sport.
These are stories of individual enterprise, tales of lonely journeys fuelled by nothing other than a drive and motivation. These are still minor victories when compared to the world’s sporting behemoths – edging the Chinese out in shooting here, and overpowering the might of the erstwhile Soviet in wrestling there. Taking incremental toddler steps in tennis and rowing one moment, and showing the audacity to stamp grace and grit in badminton on the rest of the world, the very next. Going past just throwing darts in the dark in fencing and archery, and storming boxing rings to land a charismatic knockout punch. The last decade has seen India bound out of its self-limiting confines and burst out like the rays of the sun. But in zooming down on the precise moments of triumphs of these outliers, we gaze into the last muscle sinew of their bodies and pore over the streams of thoughts that zipped through their minds. In joining these dots, we record India’s tiny blinks on the global sports radar. But like our man in space noted, it all started with learning to sit still while the world of G-forces swirled around. In sport, Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual gold medallist started this folklore by standing regally still amidst what was typically Indian chaos. It’s a record in Indian SHOOTING as boast-worthy as the Indian cricket team’s World Cup stat against Pakistan. Except, India’s four shooting medallists won’t boast that they all left a Chinese in their wake: Bindra blazed past a wailing Zhu Qinan for gold, double trap shooter RVS Rathore quelled back a chasing pack with Zheng Wang nudged to bronze, silver medallist Vijay Kumar shrugged off Ding Feng who sat back at third place and Gagan Narang denied Tao Wang a medal altogether pinning him to 4th. Quite simply, no Indian shooting medallist has allowed a Chinese to overtake him on the medal pave till now. India’s first medal at the London Games, in fact, came in the ghostly silent vacuum Narang created for himself after Tao had already taken the shot that blinked 10. 4.
The crowd had started one right dining ruckus as Narang needed a minimum 10. 1. (In qualification he had foozled a pair of 9s around the 53rd shot). But he would shoot a 10 point serene 7, to puncture Chinese hopes in 2012. Perhaps the most commanding of Chinese put-downs was Abhinav Bindra’s charge towards gold – epochal enough for the host’s biggest newspaper to splash him on their front page. Rathore had teed off at Athens with India’s first silver. But most of India’s bustling teen population in 2008 had never known what it was to win an Olympic Gold. When Bindra’s came, it was almost imperative that the core of that success was earnest endeavour drizzled with excellence. His precise preparation would later spawn a tome of transcendence. But it was in that downing of the Chinese that the soundless Bindra ballad reached its crescendo. For the man, the high point was him fighting 10. 7 right after his sighting shot had caused the greatest turbulence of his life, needing a gun realignment to get back on track. To the world, it was the 10. 8 — a moment of epic clarity and release for the young man given to self-doubt and constant questioning. Bindra would take his final Beijing shot clearly, quickly, aggressively and courageously. The trigger pulled in those nano-moments between the 4th and 5th heartbeat of seconds, he was the first person to shoot and showed just how regal perfection could look. Perfection measured 10. 8 that noon in Shijingshan district. Unusually calm the evening before, his coach Gaby had incited a tiny panic attack in Bindra to shake him out of the uncharacteristic tranquillity. His old fiendish companion — the feeling of a stabbing sword in the gut and the chest — had promptly fetched up. But Bindra had even rehearsed to deal with this eventuality, and slayed it like a boss. The gold was to come at the end of such meticulous preparation that he’d effectively buried India’s usual propensity to laidback preparation which saw athletes turning up on the day and hoping that fate would rule in their favour somehow. He had prepared his body for both the stabbing feeling in the gut and the wavering mind which could lose the plot like it did briefly in his sixth series. It was a 10. 9 (out of 10. 9) in preparation that yielded the 10. 8 on the final shot.
Vijay Kumar also had a 100 percent to boast. In Classes 7 & 8, he’d won the only certificates he did of his academic life, for cent percent Attendance at school in Himachal. But going beyond his capacity to work very hard and very diligently, this average student shaped up to become a special pistol shooter from the Army. His palm size was larger than average, helping with the pistol grip. His reflexes when the target light blinks from red to green are extraordinary (at its toughest, you fire 5 shots in 4 seconds on targets in a straight line). And he could pack it all in – watch the blinking light, lift his hand, align sights, pull the 1 kg trigger lever, soak in the recoil and control the heartbeat – over and over again, shot after shot after shot. While the recoil of a 7. 62 mm sniper’s weapon in the army can even dislocate shoulders, single-handed triggering on the 25m Rapid Fire pistol range, has its own tremoring of the shoulder that Vijay’s time-bound duelling, entailed. While Vijay went into the Olympics having done well in the quickfire format of 5 targets in 8-6-4 seconds, routinely wracking scores of 585, he was up against World Cup medallists with over 25 wins under their belt in the final. It’s in the tenacity and work-rate of his last 6 months after winning a quota in 2011 that Vijay literally moulded the pattern that culminated in the silver. Giving up oily, spicy food (a habit he’s still maintained), training his body physically for two hours, fine-tuning a technique he’d come to trust, and eschewing the urge to try anything new at the last moment, Vijay set into force a habit. He had trained his mind to live in the moment, focus only on the input and perish all stray thoughts of outcome. All he felt was the strain of lifting the gun for 6-7 hours. He was priming to succeed by not allowing anything to distract him.
On Finals day, he stuck to the only thing he knew – sticking to a plan, barely caring for scores or standings. A medal eluding him would’ve surprised him — his silver, he reckons was the most logical conclusion. Yet, the spell was broken in 2016 when India returned with no medals in shooting. A shaky tile in the floor or the tremulous pulling of the rug from under the feet, Indian shooters had been known to find steadiness in the storm that is Indian sport. Only the sturdiest hearts learned to imbibe the recoil, and win. All four even edged the Chinese to a notch below India. The country now awaits its first Female Olympic medallist in shooting. Those medals have been China’s preserve for some time now – but that’s the rite of passage into India’s shooting pantheon.
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