Malaika Goel stopped going to school in Class VI. At 16 years, the Ludhiana teenager — the youngest member of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games Indian contingent — has picked up a stunning silver in the 10m Air Pistol event, fetching the country its first medal in shooting at the Barry Buddon ranges.
Malaika is unlike most 16-year-olds. “I don’t like anything much beyond shooting,” she says. That includes keeping a cellphone and spending time on social networking sites. It also included not panicking after her qualification score pitched her in fourth place ahead of the knockout final, where shooters get eliminated after every series.
The baby of this high-achieving Indian pistol team, Malaika (total score 197.1) chased leader and gold medallist Shun Xie Teo (198.6), snapping at her heels, and displayed both consistency and a steely nerve in the shoot-offs. Her 10.2 to relegate Dorothy Ludwig to bronze in the penultimate head-to-head showed her mettle.
“I hadn’t started well in qualification, I just couldn’t settle down and qualified fourth. But because my qualification scores were poor, I knew I had to, really had to, do something in the final,” she says, of her series of 96, 92, 95 and 95 for a total of 378.]
Heena Sidhu, the overwhelming favourite, had imploded after the final started five minutes early and her routine was ruffled, going out second of the eight finalists in the elimination.
Things hadn’t stuck to plan for Malaika either. “When I’d set off to Glasgow, I only wanted to improve my scores. Well that didn’t happen, but I won a medal!” she says.
Her father, SP (Vigilance) in Punjab, had insisted when she was 10 that she needed to pick at least one sport. “I always wanted to shoot professionally, it was never a hobby,” says the determined markswoman who was spotted by coach Gurjeet Singh at a routine children’s training camp. A range was built at home, Malaika opted out of school and has pretty much stayed focused on her goal, encouraged by her well-to-do parents.
Mother Amandeep travels to all her events — she has been to only three World Cups, having started out in the seniors only this year. Malaika had grown up watching senior team-mate Heena Sidhu and wanting to shoot scores like her. On Friday, she outdid her.
Obsessed with sport, Malaika remembers rushing home from school four years ago and wanting to watch all the events of the Delhi Games at once. “Even London, I just loved watching every sport that was happening — they were the ‘TV athletes’,” she says, not quite realising she’s a TV athlete herself now.
Kuldeep Singh, a London resident, had hiked up to Glasgow, and had lined up in a tweed kilt — one amongst three medal tray-bearers, incidentally the one that held Malaika’s silver at the medal ceremony and said his trip was made. “I’m originally from Amritsar and I go wherever Indian athletes are competing. It’s such an honour to be part of her big day. She’s a girl from our Punjab,” says the 50-year-old.
The only signs Malaika betrays of still being a teenager are on the podium, when she lifts her heels slightly, swings on her toes when receiving the medal. All else points to an athlete, who knows exactly what she needs to do to win, and will set about doing it all.\
In the lead-up, the youngster — funded and supported by Anglian Medal Hunt and Olympic Gold Quest — had undergone extensive mental training under mountaineer and motivational speaker Satyavrat D with Skype sessions to calm her down because her maiden Commonwealth Games meant she had clamped up out of the nervousness.
“She’s a Buddha in training and a Samurai when she shoots,” says fellow shooter Om Prakash. “Calmer than anyone I know. Definite star of the knockout finals!” he added. There was a hint of Abhinav Bindra in her poise. Having picked her first CWG medal on a day when Bindra picked his last.