The retail store inside the Games Village is like any other. Its customers, though, are not. The Commonwealth’s top athletes drop by all day, their choices revealing a lot about their eating habits. Rice crackers, the sour cream and chive flavored ones, are the most popular snack among the diet-conscious athletes.
Anish Bhanwala, however, has no such worries. He’s scanning the shelves stacked with chocolate bars, accompanied by Manu Bhaker, the 16-year-old shooter who won the gold medal a couple of days ago. The duo leaves with Au$24 worth of bars and candies—a reward for a good day’s work for Bhanwala.
A few hours earlier, Bhanwala had won gold medal in pistol shooting’s most thrilling event, the rapid fire, like it was stealing candies from a kid; the only difference being that the one who stole it is a kid himself. Bhanwala, 15, became the country’s youngest gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, bettering the record set by Bhaker. “When she won the gold, I thought I had a chance to beat her record become the youngest winner,” Bhanwala says, teasingly. “This was the only chance because by 2022, I would be older and since shooting isn’t there at the CWG in 2022, I would probably have to wait till 2026.”
Bhanwala and Bhaker are two teenagers lost in the eccentric world of a Games Village. Most things are off limits to them, with coach Jaspal Rana ensuring they spend most time either at the gym or at the training centre. Recreation is an hour or two at the games room, where they indulge in a game of table tennis. And when he has time, Bhanwala deals with his worries that dog a normal Class 10 student— like solving a math problem.
When he returns to Delhi next week, Bhanwala will not be spending time attending felicitations. “I have to give my board exams,” he says. Last month, Bhanwala arrived from his maiden World Cup in Mexico at the dead of night and at the crack of dawn next day, he sat for a class X board paper. He appeared for two exams —English and science— before leaving for the junior World Cup and the CWG.
When he returns, the situation won’t be any different. His remaining three papers— math, social science and Hindi—will be held from April 16 to 18, and on the 19th, he leaves for a World Cup in South Korea. “Hindi is easy and I can manage SS. Math is the toughest,” he says.
Bhanwala is here with his books but hasn’t had the time to study. He got an exemption from the CBSE board for the exams. “There is a procedure for that. I mailed them from the school first and then the sports ministry also recommended to the board,” he says.
But if he is any good at studies as he is at sport, Bhanwala won’t have to worry. He began as a pentathlete where, as a 10-year-old, he competed in the modern pentathlon junior world championship. Among the five sports, Bhanwala was hooked the most to shooting, where he shot the laser pistol events.
His remarkable scores lured him into pursuing the sport full time but it wasn’t until last year when he burst onto the international scene as a prodigious 14-year-old with two golds, two silvers and a bronze medal at the junior world championships. At the same tournament, he created a world record en route to clinching the 25-metre standard pistol gold.
In December, he competed at the CWG range for the first time during a test event. Back then, he’d won a rapid fire silver. He bettered the colour of the medal on Friday, but as was the case with Bhaker, Rana is concerned that they might lose their way after the numerous felicitations and cash prizes that routinely follow a medal at events like the CWG.
“The biggest issues with an athlete aren’t the external factors. It’s how they themselves deal with the fame that follows,” Rana says. “Anish will now get lakhs of rupees in prize money. It’s easy to get distracted and lose the hunger to continue shooting well. The challenge is to keep them focused.”
Bhanwala stands next to Rana, with hands on his back and mischievous grin – like a pupil being lectured by the school principal. He isn’t concerned about losing focus and the cash prizes. Right now, he seems content just by someone paying the bills for his chocolates.