TOMOYUKI MATSUDA, 42, is a Japanese legend in 10m air pistol, and also the 2017 Male Shooter of the Year. Jin Jongoh, 38, is a Korean four-time Olympic gold medallist who holds the world record in air pistol — pistol faithful call him God, and in India’s shooting fraternity they say, “If there’s anyone Rajinikanth can’t beat with a pistol, it’s Jongoh”. Wu Jiayu and Wang Mengyi are China’s wonderkids in pistol who have starred in recent World Cups. Korean Lee Daemyung is the 2010 Asiad champion. Kazakh Vladimir Isschenko is a continental medallist.
But none of them was better than Indian teenager Saurabh Chaudhary, who blew away one of the toughest fields in a shooting final in his first senior tournament to announce his arrival as 10m air pistol’s latest sensation at the Jakabaring Sports City of Palembang on Tuesday.
None was younger than him either — at 16 years, three months, nine days, the boy from Kalina village in Uttar Pradesh became the first Indian to win an air pistol championship. Only Vijay Kumar — silver medallist in the 2012 London Olympics — has nicked a medal in the event.
Later, Saurabh had the Japanese media piqued and asking about his origins. Even the Chinese contingent was left impressed with India’s two-day pickings of 1 gold, 3 silver, 2 bronze — they would shoot thumbs-up signs at anyone with a Tricolour, after Saurabh and bronze medallist Abhishek Verma, another first-timer at 29, swamped the podium, pushing all that pedigree to one side.
What were you doing when you were 16?
Saurabh Chaudhary is shattering records, a new Games Record in Final with score of 240.7 pts. Congratulations for the Gold Saurabh, competing against some of the best in the world. India India 🇮🇳🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/zMg3dv5M5h
There were signs of this coming, though. Saurabh topped the qualification score at an astounding 586, ahead of Asia’s best, and had been shooting 587 consistently in training. But it was in the finals that he trumped the Japanese legend, who led throughout till Saurabh tripped him on the last two shots — scoring 240.7 ahead of the Japanese shooter’s 239.7.
Going into the gold face-off, Matsuda was on 220.5, and Saurabh on 220.1. After an identical 9.8 from both, Matsuda crumbled, shooting a 9.4 while Saurabh kept it steady at 10.1.
Matsuda had been pipped at Delhi’s year-end World Cup Finals last winter by 19-year-old Ukrainian sensation Korostylov who owns the junior world record. But even he wouldn’t have anticipated a 16-year-old to keep his nerve in such a situation.
A howler of an 8.9 bolted from the Japanese’ pistol, while Saurabh upped the ante with a 10.2. The Indian edged ahead at the end to get to 230.3, Matsudo staggering at 229.4.
Superb show by young Saurabh !! Many many Congratulations. We must pledge support to these young athletes for a sustained period of time irrespective of results. They have the ingredients for Olympic success. Needs persistent support irrespective.
— Abhinav Bindra OLY (@Abhinav_Bindra) August 21, 2018
The last shot could have gone either way. Pressure, inexperience, age, a raucous crowd, a thousand muddling quandaries whether to shoot safe or aggressive — it’s the stuff a second-place silver is made of. None of those thoughts crossed Saurabh’s mind.
His highest had been 10.6, he had eight 9s and averaged 10.03. Matsuda had brimmed with 10.8 and 10.6 to start and take the lead, had nine 9s, averaging 9.9. But the 8.9 on the penultimate shot, the crunch, finished Matsuda’s hopes. Saurabh would coolly follow his 10.2 with a 10.4 on his final shot to claim a sensational gold. Matsuda, incidentally, has never won an Olympic gold.
READ | Who is Saurabh Chaudhary?
The signs had been ominous when Jongoh fiddled with his sighting shots at the start of the final and asked for an extra shy, arguing with officials at Lane 1. Standing behind him in Lane 2 was Saurabh, metaphorically snapping at his heels. Word had it that Jongoh had been struggling with his weapon, battling stability issues.
Saurabh, on the other hand, had just returned from customising his Morini Titanium grip, helped by older brother Nitin, who remains a rock of support as he negotiates a nascent career.
16 years. Very first Asian Games. AND A 🥇 MEDAL.
— Rajyavardhan Rathore (@Ra_THORe) August 21, 2018
Pistol in India has been dominated by the Army shooters, and the two civilians — rookies at that — had created a flutter this time, edging out the big names domestically to qualify for the Asiad. Shazahr Rizvi, India’s No. 1, had also been pipped in selection.
”Subah sochke nikla tha, jo hoga dekha jaaega,” Saurabh said, adding cryptically, “When he shot 8.9, I thought at least the silver is mine.”
Unfussed by pressure or the reputations he was punching holes in, it was as if Saurabh had simply refused to think, shot after shot.
“If I had been thinking, or if something was going on in my mind, I wouldn’t have got this medal,” he said.
“I know these people are big shooters, but I’ve never seen them. I don’t have any role models in shooting really. I just try to get better myself,” he said.
He had just returned from Suhl in Germany shooting a junior gold score in only his first year of competing abroad. His father Jagmohan is a farmer, and mother Brijesh his immense support, though it is his brother who ties up whatever loose ends the meticulous shooter leaves behind.
Not prone to being impulsive, and aware that he was shooting in the finals, Saurabh latched on to every word of wisdom coming his way from coach Pavel Smirnov. “He absorbs very quickly,” the coach said.
Saurabh says he likes “drawing”, prefers to stay away from a phone and divides his day into segments. “Morning yoga, then breakfast, then shooting. I got into shooting because I liked the pistol. Why should I be distracted?” he said.
Those close to him say he wasn’t even clear on the precise selection criterion for getting into the Asiad squad till a few months ago.
At the Asian Games, Saurabh first wrapped up a very quick qualification — recovering from the tiny stutter at 93 in the third series, after 99, 99 to finish with 98, 99. It’s the mark of a good shooter to bounce back from the 9s. On Tuesday, Saurabh Chaudhary did that better than the best.