Shooting star on the rise

Shooting star on the rise

Manu Bhaker. PTI

At 16, Manu Bhaker is in the tireless process of exploration -- of self and the world. The teenager is not the kind to hold back, but she also carries in her a sweet vulnerability which is endearing. Despite the fickleness which her age brings, she has found solace in shooting where her exploits have already marked her out as a future star.

Manu remains unaffected by all this. She likes to approach her event ‘shot by shot’ and that stands true for all things in her life. She carries her achievements with a certain ease -- be it the gold medal in 10m air pistol in her maiden World Cup at Guadalajara, Mexico or twin golds (individual and mixed team) at the Commonwealth Games which gripped the imagination of the country. In fact, Manu had defeated two-time champion Alejandra Zavala on her way to the World Cup title.

Manu is among the group of young shooters who are relentlessly snapping at the heels of seniors and assuring the good health of Indian shooting. In the Commonwealth Games, she had beaten compatriot and former World No 1 Heena Sidhu for gold in the 10m air pistol. Although thrilled by her achievements, she is far from being carried by away them.

“I do not compete with anybody and I don’t like comparisons with anybody. I don’t think about expectations and pressure. I just focus on my technique and performance. I look to focus on things I can control,” said Manu who is the youngest Indian to win a gold at a World Cup. She now has medals in both junior and senior levels.

“I am practising as hard as possible. My only aim is to make India proud with my performances. I give my best and don’t think of winning medals. It is not possible to win always,” she says. 

Manu has a packed calendar, beginning with the senior and junior World Cups in Germany — Munich and Suhl — followed by a tournament in the Czech Republic. Then there is the Asian Games in Indonesia, World Championships in Korea, which will double up as quota event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina.

In all, Manu gets to spend 18 days in a year in the country. But she is not complaining. Shooting has captivated her and she wants to give it her all for now. “You don’t get medals just like that. You have to win them. I have not competed in Asian Games before but I understand there will be more countries. I will give my best. We can’t do well always but when we bounce back after falling, that is when your true character comes forth,” she firmly puts it across.

‘Natural at sports’

Manu has been known to be moody. She began to dabble in sport after her parents worried about her being chubby. So her father would get the tickets of various sports events for her and her elder brother Akhil and wait for them to pick the sport of their choice. Manu tried out various disciplines till she was 14 and even excelled in them. She was a three-time national champion in Huyen Langlon, a Manipuri martial art, besides being state champion in boxing and skating, before she set her heart on shooting.

Her father, Ram Kishan Bhaker, a chief engineer in Merchant Navy, remembers asking her if she was sure about shooting as her choice, as it would require him to invest quite a bit of money for equipment. “She said yes. I said but you would have to pursue it for at least two years. She said I can only promise one year!” he laughs.

It’s been two years since she picked up the pistol.

“It’s a peaceful and mental sport. You don’t get hurt and there is no cheating also which happens in others sports,” Manu reasons.

The girl from Haryana has benefitted from forward-looking parents -- her mother Sumedha runs a school of which she is the principal. Manu who is now in 12th standard, nurtures dreams of pursuing medicine and her mother calmly assures her studies will be taken care of.

In a state notorious for gender discrimination and female infanticide, Manu is among the fortunate. She insists she has faced no problems growing up in Jhajjar district. “There have been good facilities for girls and it’s sometimes even better than the boys’. I haven’t faced any troubles,” she emphatically states and in a quick afterthought, adds: “Maybe my parents have protected me, I don’t know. “

Ram Kishan admits there were some who questioned his decision. “Whenever they would say something adverse, I would not listen. Now whenever Manu wins, I feel someone has added one litre of blood in me. I can’t describe the joy. My friends got sweets before her event in Commonwealth Games. That is the kind of confidence they have in her,” he said.

“Her gold in Mexico World Cup was her best gift to me. There she was under pressure and went on to win. It’s because of the changed policy of National Rifles Association of India (NRAI). It was the idea of Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Jaspal Rana to allow combined participation wherein a junior shooter -- if he/she has the ranking and talent -- is allowed to participate at the senior level.”

Manu, who has been able to get entry into junior as well as senior tournaments, insisted she would continue participating in junior tournaments to get exposure.

“It helps in dealing with pressure regularly. I still have four years to compete at the junior level and I will keep participating in junior as well as senior tournaments. It will make my experience richer,” she said.

In national junior coach Jaspal Rana, Manu has got an ideal mentor who puts great emphasis on discipline. “With a junior, you have to become like them put the message across. They know how to shoot, how to pull a trigger and behave in a competition. Discipline needs to be instilled in them,” Rana said.

“I ensure all are treated equally in the camp. But the best part of Manu is that she is strong. No one call bully her. And that quality helps her. She is a good final fighter.”

Manu, too, has rich words of praise for her coach. “He insists on strong discipline, punctuality, proper diet, good behaviour in our interaction with seniors. Basically, he wants perfection in everything we do,” she said.

Her father remembers an incident at the 2016 National Games where, because of some mishap, Manu managed to win only one gold medal. “There she saw a girl with multiple medals around her neck. She told me, ‘Papa I will get a lot of medals next year.’ And in 2017, she won 15 medals including 11 gold in the national championship,” he said. “She is one determined child.”