The pressure of competing in the highest level of sport can be cruel on an athlete. It forced Apurvi Chandela to consult a psychologist and pushed her into spirituality. Yet, it has followed her like a ghost.
In the final of Munich World Cup last year, she led a formidable pack until nerves took over, and she shot a score so low (5.6) that she crashed out of the competition. It was just one shot-the only one that bad in entire 2018-but enough for many to question her ability to handle pressure.
On Saturday, she found herself among the final 8 of a World Cup once again. The cameras focussed on her unblinkingly. The emcee and tiny monitors, flashing scores and noting positions, made sure Chandela knew about the flying start the three Chinese were off to and their progress once she leapfrogged them to take the lead.
Everything looked calm on the surface when, in fact, it was anything but that. "Pressure is usually there. (But) at that point, you just want to focus on every shot, keep your calm and go for your shots," Chandela says. Chandela blew the field away with remarkable precision to set a world record in the women's 10m air rifle with a score of 252.9 and win the World Cup's first gold medal in this edition. China's Zhao Ruozhu, who set a world record in the qualifying round, and Xu Hong took home a silver, bronze and the two Tokyo Games spots on offer.
Chandela already had won a quota for India last year. Yet, the significance of her performance isn't lost. This was India's first World Cup gold medal in the women's 10m air rifle after 16 years and comes at a time when the level of competition in this event within India is very high.
India has struggled to fill the void in women's 10m air rifle ever since Anjali Bhagwat and Suma Shiroor quit the scene. At the moment, however, India has five shooters who are consistently shooting world class scores and setting the bar higher after every tournament. "It's very intense, the competition within India. If you make one mistake then you are out of the team," says Mehuli Ghosh, the youngest among the five.
Ghosh, 19, knows only too well. At the selection trials, she missed a spot in the team by decimals. On Saturday, there was daylight between her and rest of the Indians in the qualifying round. Ghosh scored 631 points – more than Chandela, who scored 629.3, as well as Anjum Moudgil and Elavenil Valarivan, the two other Indians in fray.
It needed a world record score by Zhao to better Ghosh's performance. However, since she was competing in the 'Minimum Qualifying Score' category in the qualifying round, she wasn't eligible for the final. Her score, however, will be considered official by the International Shooting Sport Federation.
"Today, Mehuli shot a great score in qualifying. Tomorrow, Meghna (Sajjanar) or Elavenil can do that," says Olympian Joydeep Karmakar, Ghosh's coach. "There are not only one or two but five shooters who are at par right now. They are actually brilliant. On their day, they can beat anyone in the world. You saw that today."
In shooting, scores are often considered as sacrosanct as the medals. The Indian quintet, over the last 12 months, has shot in the range of 628 to 630 on an average. "It's phenomenal. The difference between them is in decimals," Karmakar says.
Moudgil says the format change introduced by the ISSF last year is one of the reasons that the Indians have emerged as a force. The world body tweaked the rules, making women athletes shoot 60 shots instead of 40 to qualify for the finals in 10m air rifle and air pistol events.
Two extra rounds
The two extra rounds, Moudgil observes, gave Indian shooters the cushion to get into the rhythm and finish with a flourish. "Women have a habit of shooting good in 40 shots and when they started 60 shots, we had advantage of having two more cards, so we would just push it. I think that’s the reason women are shooting such high scores," Moudgil says.
Chandela and Karmakar say the accessibility and affordability are the other factors. "I am from Jaipur, Meghana is from Bangalore, Elavenil is from Ahmedabad, Mehuli is from Kolkata... it shows that the sport is getting accessible in different parts of the country," Chandela says.
It's also cheaper compared to outdoor shooting events. An air rifle costs roughly around Rs 2 lakh while a small bore weapon is almost double the rate. While that's a long-term investment, air rifle becomes affordable because of cheap ammunition-its pellet costs Rs 1-1.5 while small bore ammo costs around Rs 25.
That has resulted in a massive surge in the number of competitors in the air rifle events at the national championships, which has translated into solid performances internationally. "In women's the competition is so tough, you can’t just miss anything. They (the youngsters) just keep pushing the scores," Moudgil says.
The high level of competition at home has been critical for the shooters being able to handle pressure in major tournaments like the World Cup. Chandela pointed this out as one of the key reasons for her being able to handle the pressure during Saturday's final.
But she knows she can't rest on her laurels. Chandela and Moudgil may have ensured two spots for India in this event at next year's Olympics but it doesn't guarantee a spot in the team. The NRAI has drafted a selection policy for the Tokyo Games, which states that the two highest-ranked shooters as per their system will represent the country at the Olympics instead of those who have earned the quota. "I have to perform in every competition. One bad tournament and you can be out of the team," she said before the World Cup. "You can't settle on something or be satisfied with anything. Sometimes the pressure gets too much. A little exhausting."