The first time Dola Banerjee noticed Deepika Kumari,the 14-year-old was dutifully keeping scores at the national selection trials at the Tata Archery academy in 2009,like any other fresher.
Banerjee believes that between then and now,the quiet scorer of targets with pen and paper standing in the corner of the field,is making Indians take note of her own shooting scores,as she makes an Olympic medal in archery sound imminently gettable this July-August.
About six months after Banerjee first met her,Deepika had become a Junior World Champion,and within a year of that,she was shooting in an adjoining lane to Dola Banerjee,staking claim to a place on the senior team. It wasnt just how precocious Deepika was that amazed Banerjee but just how diligently in love with a sport that the youngster had started out in not many years ago.
She could put in endless hours,before and after normal practice,just to tweak the most minor of adjustments to technique. She was always very serious about practice,and to think shes barely 17 right now, Banerjee says.
A string of good scores culminating into the podiums and near-medals at 2010s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games meant Deepikas rise coincided with archerys upgrade from the periphery to the mainstream,as Delhi saw the sport and its exponents in flesh and blood rather than in bland,confusing numerical scores. Deepika had done for archery what Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal are credited to have done for womens tennis and badminton: become the youthful faces of future promise.
Banerjee knows all about being synonymous with a sport,even if archery largely remained on the fringes in her peak years.
When I started,people wouldnt immediately identify with archery, she says,adding that there have been countless times when she would enact the phantom bow-arrow routine,and then give up when quizzical looks persisted. But in the last 2-3 years,and especially after the CWG,ordinary folk know about archery because of the many medals. And now,time is ripe for Indians to win the Olympics medal, says Deepikas predecessor,who also won the Youth World title in 1996,and 11 years on had picked an individual recurve World Cup title in 2007.
When Banerjee started out,there were few jobs and lesser tournaments just one or two each year,compared to the half dozen the present day archers jet out to now. The equipments all in place too,qualitatively,though with a daily usage of 400-500 arrows per archer,the demand for the imported darts is expected to go up.
Keeping it calm
But above all else,Deepika will have benefitted from all the international exposure shes gained,reckons Banerjee. For in archery,unlike the relatively quieter ambience of shooting ranges,crowds create a browbeating ruckus. Banerjee wont ever forget how unnerved she felt at Athens in 2004.
Archery venues get noisy and more partisan than any other precision sport. I lacked in experience of dealing with it at Athens. Beijing got better but everything needs to come together. Deepika will be a first-timer at London,but her temperament is promising for the big events, Dola says. The recent Turkey triumph was enough indication of her unflappability,as she started out ranked 23rd in the knockouts and finished with gold.
The last arrow was the key. She shot 10,and put the Korean a former Olympic medallist under pressure, Banerjee gushes.
Theres no overwhelming surge of advice though coming from Banerjee to Deepika. Just as well,for the senior preaches uncluttering first and foremost. Deepika should think of the Olympics as just another World Cup. And draw confidence from the fact that shes already won one. When archers think too much,pressure builds up. So I wont burden her with advice,she doesnt need it, she says. Pithily,Dola Banerjee has just paid Deepika the biggest compliment. And passed on the baton.