On Thursday morning, national shooting coach Jaspal Rana was sitting in the coaches’ area watching Manu Bhaker in the10m Air Pistol qualification of the ISSF World Cup final at Putian, China. The former junior world champion made a nervous start with a score of 94 in the first series - the lowest among the top 12 shooters in the qualification.
Bhaker, who had sealed India’s first 2020 Olympics quota with a fourth-place finish in the Munich World Cup earlier this year, recovered to make her third final at the international level in the 10m Air Pistol this year with a qualification score of 578.
The final saw the Haryana shooter setting a new world junior record score of 244.7 to claim the gold medal ahead of Zorana Arunovic of Serbia. The gold at the World Cup Final was a huge achievement and helped her silence her critics after a middling year. Post her twin junior world titles in 2018, Bhaker had only made two finals out of six World Cup appearances. She had a gold medal in Mexico, where she shot 572 in the qualification and 237.5 in the final to win the gold.
Post Mexico, Bhaker had finished 47th in Munich and 30th in Changwon last year before finishing 14th and 17th in New Delhi and Beijing World Cups. A month after Beijing, she suffered a pistol malfunction in the 25m event in Munich World Cup but finished fourth in the 10m Air Pistol two days later to earn the 2020 Olympics quota for India.
On Thursday, Bhaker started on a confident note in the final as she finished the second series on the second spot trailing Arunovic by 1 point. The next four shots in the elimination round saw Bhaker emerging as the leader having build a lead of 0.2 points over the Serbian after the end of second elimination series. In the gold medal shoot-off with Arunovic, Bhaker maintained her composure and won the gold medal by a margin of 2.8 points.
Rana was pleased. “ The fourth place in Munich, where she earned the quota made her believe again that she belongs to this level and we worked on her mental strength in recent months. There is nothing more to change in her technique. She has learnt to manage the ups and downs in her career,” Rana said
The smog in the capital had forced 20-year-old Elavenil Valarivan to shift her training base from Delhi to one in Chennai. It was her mentor Gagan Narang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist, who advised her to shift to his Gun for Glory centre in the southern state. Apart from getting relief from the poor air quality, the move to Chennai also allowed the young shooter to work on attaining consistency in terms of qualification scores.
The change of training venue took place just after she finished fifth in the 10 metre air rifle at the Asian Championships in Doha - where her qualification score was 629. She had been thereabouts for a while and Narang felt the qualifications score needed to be upped. As a motivation tool, he pasted a print out with the world record qualification score of 636 on it at the shooting range.
On Thursday Elavenil’s score of 631.1 in qualification at Putian was a much better effort than what she has been producing recently. “When she landed from Doha, we did not want her to train in Delhi due to the smog issue. That’s why we sent her to train in Chennai even though it was for just 3-4 days. Her qualifying scores have been seeing some fluctuations in recent months and I spent some time on making some minor adjustments to her weapon. To see her put such hard work and to become the champion in World Cup final, where world’s top 15-16 shooters compete, is a special feeling for all of us,” Narang said.
Elavenil’s qualification score of 631.1 was her second best of the year in ISSF World Cups this year. In the final, Elavenil was up against Asian Games champion Zhao Ruozhu of China and two-time World Cup champion Coman Laura of Romania. But admirably, she didn’t flinch. Cool head, steady fingers.