India's pistol prince

Personality

COOL CUSTOMER: Saurabh Chaudhary's calmness under pressure has impressed experts. PTI

The final hall of the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range was packed to the rafters. There was unrestrained excitement in the crowd which applauded, cheered and whistled in a loop. The only poker face in that room was Saurabh Chaudhary -- who shot the gold medal with a world record score on his senior World Cup debut.

The fact Saurabh is just 16 heightens the magnitude of his achievement. Such was his hold in the final of the 10m air pistol that he finished an astounding 5.7 points ahead of the second-placed Serbian Damir Mikec. To crunch more figures, he shot with an average higher than 10.2 points per shot in the final. Saurabh’s gold medal also fetched India an Olympic quota place, the only one the country would win in this World Cup in their backyard.

The young marksman, however, moved around unaffected by the hysteria. His answers in the press meet were painfully cryptic, his emotions restrained. Yet, Saurabh was the darling of the World Cup; often stopped for a handshake and requests for selfies by home fans as well as foreign shooters. On the last day, he brought more cheers for the home crowd when he, along with Manu Bhaker, won the gold in mixed pistol event; the two teenagers equaling the world record score in the qualification.

While Manu was all eloquence after the medal, Saurabh kept to himself, happy in the wall he had built around him. He had shot an 8.9 in the final, his lowest hit during the week. When asked if it added to the pressure, Saurabh shook his head. “I immediately forgot about it.”

The answer, in a way, defines Saurabh. In the face of pressure, his focus and uncomplicated approach remained intact. The noise from the crowd didn’t affect him. He knew how to block distractions.

This attitude has played a key role in shaping Saurabh’s nascent but remarkable journey. He is the only Indian shooter to win gold medals in ISSF junior World Championship, Youth Olympic Games, Asian Games and Asian Air Gun Championship. He holds senior and junior world records after winning both the World Cups.

It was only three years ago the shy boy from a farmer’s family in Kalina village in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, found his calling in shooting. He began from a modest range made of tinsheets by coach Amit Sheoran, whom he addresses as ‘guruji’.

For Saurabh, his day begins at 5 am and revolves around shooting. “I do yoga, surya namaskar, stretching, then training, lunch, training and then in the evening physical workout and running,” he said.

Sheoran, who attended the mixed team final, was proud of his ward.

“Any shooter who is competing in the final will be under pressure but you need to have the ability to stop those negative thoughts. Any kid who is patient is able to do that. And that is Saurabh’s biggest strength. He keeps to himself so much that he doesn’t speak much even at his home or village. He is an introvert. In 24 hours, he doesn’t even speak 24 words!” Sheoran laughed. “He prepares himself very well. Whatever target I set for him, he aims to shoot above that. He is really a fantastic shooter. Because of him a lot of kids have started coming and I had to tell them I don’t have space. We are now trying to make the range big with help from friends and Saurabh. I also want to take girls in my academy.”

Before the World Cup, Sheoran worked on slashing Saurabh’s timings. “We made small changes in the technique for the final. I reduced his time. Earlier he used to take 15-16 seconds to release one shot. Now he does that in 12-13 seconds. In shooting, the more you delay, the more pressure comes on you. It is ideal you fix a time according to your comfort and release a shot within that time period. I noted that between 12-13 seconds, he was at his best,” Sheoran said.

Saurabh’s approach and success often remind one of the seasoned Jitu Rai, who had won medals in every competition except Olympics, before his form woefully dipped. Opinions divide on who is the better shooter in the finals -- but there is no ambiguity that Saurabh is the best pistol shooter for India at the moment and a strong prospect for an Olympic medal next year.

Indian team’s high-performance director for pistol, Samresh Jung, emphasised the importance of mental maturity in shooting. “Saurabh shot like he has always been shooting at the senior level. Despite the crowd making so much noise, there were no slips from him. He did not talk to anyone between qualification and final. He is a very focused shooter and that is what sets him apart,” Jung said.

“Overall you can say shooting is getting younger as a sport but it all depends on your mental maturity. My coach used to say only two kinds of people are not afraid: People who are dead and those who are fools! Rest everybody feels pressure. It is not that our junior shooters are fearless but I think they are pretty capable of handling that fear.”

Ask Saurabh how he copes with his fame and the 16-year-old comes up with a characteristic reply: “When you get a medal, then everyone recognises you. People obviously want to take pictures with you. Why will there be pressure? It feels good,” he said.

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