Suma Shirur became the first Indian, and the sixth shooter in the world, to have shot a perfect 400 in the qualifying round of the women’s 10m air rifle event at the Asian Championships in 2004.
India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in ‘Those Months, Those Minutes’.
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An eternity passed by, or so it seemed for Suma Shirur, as she shot at a target no greater than a centimetre in diameter, 10 metres away. The exercise — raise the rifle, control breathing, take aim with as much focus as you can muster, fire, and then do it all again till you have 40 shots on the board – took a lot out of her, both physically and mentally. When it was all over in the 50-minute qualifier, she was confident about all except four shots that she felt were not quite hitting 10.
In the qualification round of the women’s 10m air rifle event before 2013, each shot was measured in round numbers – which means what would be a 9.9 or 10.9 now would be a 9 or 10 respectively. Based on this scoring format, Shirur expected at least 396. She chanced a glance at the stands in the shooting range in Kuala Lumpur after taking her 40th shot and spotted her husband Siddharth. He followed her gaze and duly held up four fingers. For Shirur, her suspicion had been confirmed. She had doubted four shots, and her husband’s signal made it clear that those four shots were 9s. But they were not.
“When I went up to him, he had a big smile on his face. I was confused. Then he told me I had shot a 400. The maximum,” Shirur remembers. “I didn’t believe it.”
At the Asian Championships in 2004, Shirur became the first Indian, and the sixth shooter in the world, to have shot a perfect 400 in the qualifying round of the women’s 10m air rifle event. A few years later, the rules were changed and as of today, women shooters take 60 shots in the qualifiers, with a maximum of 10.9 points available per shot. As of today, 16 years after that marvel in Malaysia, Shirur remains the only Indian woman to have achieved the perfect score.
But her job was not done. Shirur knew this was still just halfway in the event. The finals were yet to be played, and it was there that her hopes of winning a medal and a quota for the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics lay.
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By the 2004 season, Shirur had been competing on the international stage for around 10 years. Never once though had she qualified for the Olympics. As Athens beckoned, she grew restless and anxious. It didn’t help her nerves that results were not going her way, and no matter how close she got to the quota, she was still far away from making the cut. The closest she got was within 0.2 points, at the Shanghai World Cup of 2002. “That was heart-wrenching,” she recalls.
Tournaments came and went, but the quota place remained as distant as ever. As the 2004 season approached, Shirur had one last chance. “I was getting desperate and, for me, the Asian Championships was the last chance. This was it. There were no quota places available after this tournament,” she recalls. “I had put in 10 years of my life into this, and to not have been to the Olympics at all, it was a waste of everything I had done. Those were the thoughts coming into my head.”
Shirur started preparing on her own two months prior to the event. She followed a sound fitness regimen to make sure that she would at least be physically fit to compete in the Malaysian capital. Mentally, she was fighting herself, looking for every ounce of motivation she could find. More often than not though, something negative would creep in. Like when she asked her husband – who would rarely accompany her on her tours – to join her for a post-event holiday since that “might have been the last chance” for her. His reply, however, gave her the boost she needed.
“He told me, ‘I don’t want to have a holiday. I’m coming for your match’,” she remembers. “I was not used to him being there for my matches, maybe just once after our marriage he had come to watch me. So when he said that, I was thinking, ‘this guy believes I can do it’. Somewhere it gave me a lot of strength and that’s when, in a way, I started looking forward to it.”
Shortly afterwards, she got a call from her old mentor, the late Bhishmaraj Bam, former president of the Maharashtra Rifle Association. “He came over to meet me and asked how preparations were going. I said ‘we’ll see’. He said, ‘there’s no we’ll see, you are going to shoot a 400’,” Shirur recalls the meeting. “He said that I have to do my best, and the best had to be 400 because the Chinese were coming in, and they used to shoot 398, 399. So, I had a target now. The decision was made that I had to go for 400. It was the goal, it wasn’t a score that just happened.”
To get a perfect score, Shirur started focusing on breathing exercises. It helped calm her mind and enabled her to concentrate on each shot. She had to stay in the moment, not think about the result, but work on executing each attempt at that centimetre target perfectly. After spending tense weeks fretting over an elusive Olympic quota, she was now set for that final fling in Kuala Lumpur, armed with some new equipment and a renewed sense of confidence.
Siddharth’s task in Kuala Lumpur was to make sure his wife stayed in a positive frame of mind. He’d observe her body language, study each and every word she’d utter and intervene when things were going off track.
“I had to fight the demons of self-belief. When the event was close, thoughts of ‘maybe you can’t do it’ were coming out in some form or the other. Siddharth would then catch me and keep me positive, make me believe that I can do it,” the current junior national rifle coach says. “He kept the mood very light, few jokes here and there, making light conversation. He wouldn’t let me stay indoors, so we’d go around, basically not allow me much time to sit and think. This was very important and it’s something that I try to do with the junior team now.”
Asian Championships: February 13, 2004
Shirur remembers waking up to a chilling nervousness. She could barely eat breakfast, and instead indulged in a session of pranayama – a breathing exercise – to calm her nerves. It worked. She did not speak at all the entire morning, nor did she interact with anyone when she went to the range. So absolute was her focus that she hardly remembers the atmosphere inside the range. In those days, a shooter could not see the qualification scores until the end of the round, so she wasn’t certain what the final score would be. And then she turned around to see her husband holding up four fingers.
For the next hour, Shirur remembers sitting under a tree outside the range, with a book in hand. “Siddharth took me outside, away from my teammates who were excited and jumping. He sat me under the tree to make sure I was still in that same focus. Then I went back into the range thinking about playing the perfect shot every time. That’s when I won gold, and the quota.”
At the Athens Games, she was the only Indian apart from Abhinav Bindra and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore to have made it to the final of their discipline. And as for the sojourn in Malaysia, the Shirurs went for a short holiday to the nearby islands. What Suma remembers though was sitting on a chair in the range after the final. “The floodgates opened. I was so exhausted, physically and mentally. It took me two days to recover,” she says.
The Asian Championships took place a few months short of her 30th birthday, but it was potentially the last competition for her as a shooter – the “do-or-die event” as she describes it. She went on to compete internationally for India for another 12 years before joining the junior national team as a coach.
Asked if that win had anything to do with her staying on in the sport, she offers: “Maybe. Yes.”