With Eyes on Tokyo Olympics, Indian Shooters Adapt to New Normal
How prepared are India’s shooters to restart their campaigns for the Tokyo Olympics?
The fist bumps and high fives have given way to thumbs up. Masks are the new accessory. The pellets and guns are constantly sanitised and neatly stacked at various corners, maintaining a safe distance.
The 80-lane competition arena at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in Tughlakabad, near Delhi, now houses only 40 competitors at a time, with the strict protocols of social distancing in place.
The Indian shooters have adapted the “new normal” as they gear up for the Tokyo Olympic Games in July 2021. After months of staying indoors, ever-changing schedules and techniques, and some of them being restricted to “dry training,” the focus is now squarely and firmly on the Olympic Games.
India’s junior pistol coach Jaspal Rana feels his “wards are in the right frame of mind for the Olympics and the upcoming World Cups will reveal the actual picture,” while 10 metre pistol shooter Abhishek Verma wants to “forget 2020 completely and begin anew” in their quest for the much-awaited Tokyo Olympics, that were originally scheduled for July-August 2020.
“Last year has been an unprecedented one, not just for us but sportspersons all over the world. We made several changes to the shooters’ training schedules and technique as everything had to be altered as per the constantly changing scenario. We did a lot of experimentation, be it travel, training schedules or the athletes’ technique to arrive at the best possible scenario, to keep our preparations on track,” says Rana, a Padma Shri awardee.
“Having said that, it was the same situation for every country, and every sportsperson. At this stage, our shooters are well prepared for the Tokyo Olympic Games. The only difficulty I see is that they are very young and many of them will be first time Olympians. How they cope with the external factors is going to be crucial. From our end, we have tried to get them out of their comfort zones and prepare them for the Games,” he adds.
Year 2020: Uncertainty and Delayed Camps
Barely months away from competing at the Tokyo Games in July 2020, Indian shooters were riding high on form and confidence. Many of them, including Saurabh Chaudhary, Apurvi Chandela and Verma, were in astonishing form, hitting top scores regularly and picking up medals at will.
In 2019, Indian shooters fetched won 21 golds in four World Cups, in what was a near-perfect performance in the build-up to the Games.
The global pandemic though changed it all. With lockdowns announced almost world over in March 2020 and the Olympic Games postponed by a year, sporting activity came to a standstill. Indian shooters too felt the pinch. A few of them, like Apurvi, continued to train at the private ranges at home, while the rest had to resort to dry training. And while it provided the shooters ample time to fine-tune their technical aspects and also spend quality time with family, sporting action was sorely missed.
Twice World Cup gold medallist Verma says he would like to “wipe off 2020 from his memory”.
“It was a very difficult period,” says the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist, who was confined to his home for months.
“We were used to training 365 days a year, and suddenly there was nothing to do. No competition, no training. Luckily, I was carrying my weapon with me and used this time for dry training. Later, Olympic Gold Quest helped set up an electronic target for me, and I spent time honing my target practice, positioning, etc. But it was still a tough situation,” says the 31-year-old shooter, who is also a lawyer.
With the lockdowns easing in July 2020 and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) coming into place, the National Rifle Association of India tried to organise the national camp twice but could not get going owing to a number of issues. Strict quarantine and travel rules, along with a coach testing positive, put a spanner in their plans before they could finally get things moving in October 2020.
“We have had two camps since then, and now the shooters are back to action with national trials this month,” reckons Rana. “In situations like these, it really matters on what kind of a human being you are. Mental fatigue sets in, and how one handles the situation becomes very important.”
“As a coach, I had to try out various things and keep their strength, technique and focus intact. The good thing is that most of our shooters are quite independent and self-reliant, and can manage very well,” adds Rana, a triple gold medallist at the 2006 Doha Asian Games.
2021: Trials and World Cups in Sight
Year 2021 began on a promising note for the shooters. The national trials held this month saw Chaudhary set a new world record in the 10 metre air pistol (246.9), en route to winning Trial 1. And although this score will not be marked as official (only scores registered in National Championships and international meets are considered official), it showcased that the shooters had not lost their touch despite training in isolation and being away from competition for months altogether.
Verma, an Olympic quota winner for Tokyo, too was back in action and described it as a “wonderful feeling”.
“It was good to be back and to compete together under one roof. However, a lot has changed mentally. It had been a year since we had any sort of trials or competition. It took me time to adjust to competition mode as before, but now I am almost there,” says Verma.
“Personally, I have doubled my training time to cover up on lost time. Earlier, I used to train for five to six hours a day. Now, it has increased to seven to eight hours a day, and seven days a week. There is no break. I want to make up for lost time and be fully prepared for the Olympics,” he adds.
And what about the new norms in place?
“We have gotten used to it. The recent camps had the SOPs in place, and everyone understands how important it is to be safe. We ensure all of our equipment, chairs, etc are well sanitised. We wear masks at all times. Earlier, we used to hug each other or high five to congratulate each other, but now it’s a thumbs up. We are happy with it as long as we are able to compete,” says the affable shooter, who also plays badminton and is into adventure sports.
The focus now is firmly on the Tokyo Olympics. The next few months will be decisive with Indian shooters looking to compete in the upcoming World Cups in New Delhi and South Korea.
Rana says the “actual picture will come out when the shooters get to compete internationally.”
“Right now, we are looking to compete in the two World Cups. But it all depends on how the government and the federation handles it. Will the shooters world over manage to travel to Delhi in the ongoing situation? Similarly, will our shooters be able to go to Korea? It all depends on the quarantine rules in effect. No shooter would like to be quarantined for long periods with no training or equipment, as that would mean losing precious time. This could turn out to be disastrous,” said Rana.
“On the competition front, I believe the actual picture of where we stand will come out once we get to compete in these World Cups. It will be crucial for our Olympics training, and set the tone for the Games,” Rana said.
The season’s opening ISSF World Cup will get under way in New Delhi on 18 March, followed by the second in Changwon, South Korea, from 16 April.
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