How 17-Year-Old Manu Bhaker Broke Records & Qualified for Olympics
At 14, she picked up a gun for the first time
At 16, she had become the undisputed Indian number 1 in the 10m air pistol event, broken multiple national records, beaten multiple Olympic medallists, won a Commonwealth Games gold and also become the youngest Indian to win golds at the shooting World Cup.
And, she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics an entire year before the event.
From 2016 to 2020, Manu Bhaker’s meteoric rise has been the stuff of dreams. But the last four years has also seen some big lows.
The Quint sat down with the young shooting star as she prepares for the biggest year of her young career. It’s Manu Bhaker’s success timeline – on this week’s spotlight.
April 2016: The Beginning
All of 14, a young Manu had already excelled in a handful of sports. She was a state-level boxer, a three-time national champion in martial arts and a state-level kabaddi player, but there was something different about shooting that drew her to the sport.
“I chose shooting because it’s such a transparent sport. The amount of hard work you put into it, you achieve that much. Like kabaddi and kho-kho, they are team sports and if your team doesn’t perform well, you won’t be able to win. In shooting, I excelled real quick. It took me two months to win a medal in any open tournament,’ said Manu, as she shared a clear thought process that went into her choosing this sport over the many others she excelled in.
August 2017: Sounding off the Seniors
Just 17 months after picking a gun for the first time, Manu rubbed shoulders with Heena Sidhu, the Indian star in her event. While Heena, 27, was still the big draw in the senior category, winning the gold, Manu, just 15, bagged the gold in the junior category with a better score than Heena’s in the senior category. She shot a 239 while Heena won her gold with a score of 238.9.
December 2017: National Superstar
A 15-year-old Manu had tasted success but what she pulled off at the 2017 National Shooting Championships may indeed be a record for the ages. The quiet girl from Haryana won a total of 15 medals, including nine golds, and broke multiple national records.
Also, she had beat the legend in her category, Heena Sidhu.
March 2018: World Cup Success
The 2018 Shooting World Cup in Mexico announced Manu on the global stage. Making her debut at 16, she beat a power-packed field, which included former champion Alejandra Zavala as well as multiple Olympic medalists to win her first World Cup gold. In the final, it came down to Manu and Zavala, a stalwart who had in fact been shooting competitively since four years before Manu was even born.
“I was hoping for a medal, definitely, because until then, in any sport, I hadn’t lost any match. So I was very confident that I will definitely win it. But when I saw the qualification board, the top eight shooters had Olympic medals and World Cup medals, they were world number 1 and world number 2. I was on the fifth or sixth position. Then I realised, this is not easy. I was nervous about that. I was like, I will try my best and whatever comes, I will accept it. Then I gradually won it and I felt so happy,” says Manu while breaking down her experience at her first World Cup.
While speaking to Manu during this interview, it also became clear that what worked for her could be the bubble the young shooter chooses to stay in.
Shooting wasn’t a sport she followed all her life, her competitors weren’t legends she had watched growing up. So, as it turned out, it was easy standing next to them and beating these world beaters.
All at just the age of 16.
“I never used to read about anyone. It was all about me and whatever I did. When they introduce a shooter during the final, they tell everything about them. That she [Heena Sidhu] is an Olympic gold medalist or World Cup double medalist or world number one. At that time, I realised how much everyone had won and I thought, one day, I’ll beat her. And as it happened, it was the same day, I beat her.”Manu Bhaker, Indian Shooter
April 2018: CWG Gold, With a Record
So now, at just 16, two years after her journey as a shooter began, Manu Bhaker had become a national champion with a national record a World Cup winner, having beaten multiple Olympic medalists and next up was the 2018 Commonwealth Games where she continued her winning run, setting a Games record on her way to the gold.
Leading an Indian 1-2 on the podium, she also became the youngest Indian to win a Commonwealth Games gold for the country.
“I actually had no expectations at all. I was very serious about my performance not about the medal. I was thinking of each and every shot because each shot has its own value. My score gradually kept increasing and the record also got made and I won the gold. Definitely it was the biggest-ever gold for India, and I won that.”Manu Bhaker
Where there is success, there will be controversy and setbacks and Manu found herself in the middle of one when Heena Sidhu, the former world number one in the 10m air pistol event, alleged that the Federation was ‘favouring the favourites’ by letting Manu compete in three events at the 2018 Asian Games.
August 2018: Asiad Setback
Did it influence her performance? Being pulled down by a shooter she would’ve looked up to? Can’t really say – but Manu suffered her career’s first major setback at the Asiad, failing to win a medal in each of the three events. In fact, in the 25m event, she shot a games record in the qualifying round but crumbled in the final, to eventually finish sixth.
“I don’t know what was happening. We have to hit the10.2 ring and I shot 10.1 and 10.0s and I was so confused and, you know, I was very disturbed at that time. I was very disappointed about that but soon I realised its just a competition in my way and it will boost me up for the future things.”Manu Bhaker
October 2018: Youth Olympics’ Star
And what a recovery she made!
Just two months later, at the Youth Olympics Manu held the lead in the 10m air pistol event straight from the qualifying round and right to the podium to become the first Indian woman to win a gold at the Youth Olympics.
2019: Doubles Success
Year 2019, though, was a different kind of year for Manu.
While on the individual front she failed to finish on the podium at any of the World Cups all year round, she partnered with another teenage star, Saurabh Chaudhary, to sweep the mixed team gold medals in each of the World Cups last season. That’s four World Cup golds.
And while speaking to Manu about their partnership, I realised they sort of have a different kind of winning formula.
“We don’t depend on each other. We just play our individual match. It’s like another individual match for me, I don’t know about him. I stay in myself and I don’t think about anyone else. It’s just about my performance and how I perform. About him... I don’t know much about him. He’s a totally different person, I don’t know him well.”Manu Bhaker
May 2019: Tokyo Quota
On an individual front, Manu also booked a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with her fourth-place finish at the Munich World Cup in May.
There was, however, some heartbreak in the 25m event, which she was quick to recover from.
“In the 25m event, I was doing so well, I was at the first place throughout the finals and on the fourth elimination, my pistol couldn’t fire. Because of that I was eliminated so it was heartbreaking because I had missed the medal also and the Olympic quota also. I could win it early, but the pistol… you know…I don’t know what to say about that. But the very next day I had the air pistol match I finished fourth and won the quota.”Manu Bhaker
November 2019: A Golden Finish
Still just 17, and with the Olympic qualification pressure off her shoulders, Manu regained old momentum and finished off the 2019 season with 2 gold medals at the season-ending World Cup finals, including one in her favourite event, the 10m air pistol.