It’s that time of the year, the Dronacharya Awards committee has been formed and the season of lobbying has begun at Shastri Bhawan. Soon, a list will be drawn up to recognise those who guide and mentor the country’s illustrious athletes. Many will stake claim for the coveted honour, a few deserving will be feted but once again, a few monumental coaching efforts will mysteriously get missed. In a three-part series, The Indian Express shakes off the dust from these tucked-away memories of the Dronacharya-denied coaches who played a stellar part in the winning of India’s biggest Olympic medals of the last decade.
“Award? I’ll accept only if it is given by a royal.” Heinz Reinkemeier lets out a chuckle when asked if he, or his wife Gaby, were ever considered for the Dronacharya Award during their 15-year long association with India’s first ever individual Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. It’s an answer that rules out the planned next questions about them having any grudge for missing out on the honour.
The couple credited with hand-holding several global shooting superstars to the top of the Olympics podium at their Dortmund-based academy likes to stay in the background. “There are so many medallists from here (his academy), we will forever be attending award functions if that begins to happen,” says Reinkemeier.
The graceful Reinkemeirs can afford to see the lighter side of missing out on a well-deserved Dronacharya but India can’t. The country’s failure to acknowledge the role played by the coaches who shaped India’s greatest sporting moment undermines the award named after the mythical teacher whose pet ward, a legendary archer, rarely missed the bull’s eye.
The Reinkemeirs’ wards too have a similar reputation. Few coaches have influenced Indian shooting in the way Heinz and his wife Gaby have. Together, they have coached three Indian shooters. Suma Shirur, the veteran rifle shooter, credits them for adding 10 years to her career. Joydeep (Heinz calls him Joystick – ‘easier to remember’) Karmakar came agonisingly close to an Olympic medal in 2012.
But the biggest moment came in 2008, when Bindra won his gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. History shows Bindra, within minutes of securing the gold, getting a warm hug from a lady in curly chestnut hair. There’s an iconic frame of the two with their eyes riveted on each other. No words were spoken, the look in their eyes too tired to show emotions. Shamefully, the lady didn’t become a household name, she never got mentioned when the time came to remembering inspiring coaches. Gaby and Heinz didn’t get the adulation that Ramakant Achrekar or Gary Kirsten got. Forget Dronacharya, she never made it to any shortlist. The stories about Bindra spending countless hours at the couple’s Dortmund residence-cum-range didn’t make it to school textbooks.
Bindra first came to the couple when he was a teenager and continued the trips to his second home in Germany till the time he came ever-so-close to winning his second Olympic medal as a 33-year-old. Interestingly, in the year when Bindra won his gold, no one received the Dronacharya. In 2009, Pullela Gopichand was rewarded for Saina Nehwal’s breakthrough performance in Beijing, Jaydev Bisht was nominated for being Vijender Singh’s assistant coach at the Games and Satpal Singh was feted for Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal.
The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) acknowledges the contributions made by the foreign coaches but comes across largely ignorant of the rules. “Laszlo (Szucsak) changed Indian shooting, trained so many of them. But if you look at Olympic results, the contribution of Heinz and Gaby certainly can’t be overlooked. But they were personal coaches and not associated with the national team directly,” Rajiv Bhatia, who has been NRAI secretary since 1987, says. “But the government rules do not allow us to nominate foreign coaches for the award.”
This isn’t true because in 2012 Cuban coach BI Fernandez was given the Dronacharya Award for turning around the fortunes of Indian boxing. Even the sports ministry’s circular inviting nominations does not have such rules. “Well, to be honest, the foreign coaches are hired for substantial salaries. So for these awards, we would rather nominate an Indian coach,” Bhatia says.
For the record, as per the data available on the Sports Authority of India website, the last shooting coach to get the Dronacharya Award was Sunny Thomas, way back in 2001. Reinkemeier, though, could not care less. He is a former German rifle shooter and an assistant coach of their national team. He has a crude sense of humour and comes across as an easygoing man. His wife Gaby is the opposite. A five-time Olympian, Gaby is intense and, as Bindra describes in his autobiography, ‘promotes suffering’. Together, Heinz says, they have produced nine Olympic champions.
They first met Bindra during a World Cup in Munich 16 years ago. “He was the first shooter from India whom I had coached. Back then, Indian shooting was very poor. His father asked if it was possible to make his son a big shooter or an Olympic champion,” Reinkemeier says. “My first response was, ‘it’s impossible.’ It was impossible to be good in shooting in India because there was no infrastructure, knowledge or technique, shooting range and competition.”
So Bindra shifted his base to Dortmund, where he stayed with the couple. Back then, Heinz says, they had a small house and a shy, unfussy Bindra would occupy the couch. “… In 2001, I had a thousand questions, Heinz and Gaby had a million answers. They were shooting academics of a sort and we talked constantly, discussing the grammar of gunfire,” Bindra writes in his book. “They were teaching me what I would somewhat master eight years later: learning to be perfect on an imperfect day.”
They double up as sports psychologists, helping the shooters overcome mental barriers which often pegged them back. Shirur, who stayed with them in 2006, recalls having conversations ranging from motherhood to politics with Gaby, creating a relaxed environment to learn the sport that demands high levels of intensity.
“I’d hit a low back then. For the first time, I wasn’t participating internationally and didn’t know what I was doing. I was running around in circles. I knew Abhinav was working with them so I asked them directly if they would coach me,” Shirur says. “The stint there was an eye-opener. I learnt in 10 days what I hadn’t learnt in 10 years. They added a decade to my career.”
Reinkemeier, though, downplays it all. “It’s not about podiums or victory ceremonies or anthems for us. No awards… unless it’s from a Queen or Princess,” he says.