For the very first time, Tejaswini Sawant’s husband Sameer Darekar was getting to watch her compete in an international tournament from start to finish, albeit 10,000 km away on television. It was worth tuning into the telly, as Sawant, for the first time in eight years, struck gold at the Commonwealth Games in the women’s 50m 3 positions rifle event, two days after she’d won silver in 50m prone rifle.
Darekar did have his chance earlier though, three days after their wedding in 2016 to be precise. “We were in Kerala for a domestic tournament and he was watching from the stands. This was his first time watching a shooting event,” Sawant says. “But he got so nervous, that once the final started, he left the building and took a walk outside.”
Darekar has a slightly different version of the story: “I wasn’t nervous. There was just so much pressure on the shooters, I didn’t want her to feel nervous about someone watching from the stands.”
Incidentally, staying in the right frame of mind was key for the 37-year-old this time. Preparation for Gold Coast involved her cutting out the tendency to look at scores. “Looking at the scores can be a distraction and unnecessary pressure,” says coach Kuheli Gangulee. “So she learnt to keep saying that to herself. She’s experienced and has good technique, so there’s not much you can teach here on that. It’s all just a mind game now, and that’s been the difference.”
The last time Sawant managed to get a podium finish at an international competition was in the 2010 CWG. Two silver medals and a bronze took her Commonwealth Games tally to five, along with the two gold medals she won at Melbourne 2006. But 2010 proved to be a crucial year for Sawant, one that began on a harsh note. She was at the Commonwealth Championships in February, the test event for the Games, when she got news on the day of the match that her father had passed away. She, though stayed back, to ensure India had participation in the rifle event, before flying home. Months later, at the ISSF World Championships in Munich, she shot 597 to level the world record.
The expectations and pressure that came with her results brought about a sharp dip in her performances. She was still competing internationally, but no longer the favourite. It didn’t help that her mother fell ill early in 2014, just as she began preparing for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. “I left shooting completely for three months to ensure my mother was healthy again,” she says. “It was a long gap. Since the game is so technical, I lost my touch and it took a long time to get it back. As a result, I couldn’t make the Asian Games or Olympics teams.”
After Rio though, there was a new resolve to get back to her old level. “You could tell that she was frustrated because she hadn’t won anything for a long time,” says Darekar. “She’d never show it though because she felt it would affect the people around her. She didn’t want anyone to feel upset, but we all knew she wanted to shoot. She had a goal.”
The next target was the CWG. While she was already working on the mental aspect of her game, the test event in October, the Commonwealth Championships in Brisbane, played a crucial role.“I too went there to compete, but another motive was to study the conditions and see what to expect,” says Gangulee. “It was quite hot, but importantly there was a lot of wind. So we knew we had to change our ammunition.”
At their training sessions at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune, the Kolhapur-native would surf the internet to check what time of the day was the windiest. “Then I’d go out and shoot at that time,” Sawant says. “It was all about acclimatizing. At the same time, I had trained myself to repeat things in my head.”
On Friday, she was arguably the most prepared athlete for the event— she was the only one to not shoot below the 10.0 mark in the last four elimination shots. But there were still a few distractions she didn’t anticipate.
“The key was for me to not look at the scores, but the organisers had put a giant TV with the scores right in front of us. And then the crowd was shouting behind us, so you could always tell when someone hit a good shot because they’d cheer,” she says. “I had trained my mind, but now I had to control my eyes and ears too.”
She still prevailed, scoring a Games record 457.9 in the final, with the silver medal going to compatriot Anjum Moudgil with 455.7. “That was physically and mentally draining, it was a marathon,” she says. Back home in Pune, there was nervous tension in the air. “There was a lot of tension here. And we were all so happy when it was finally over,” Darekar says. “But this is just the beginning. Next is Asian Games and Olympics. And I want to watch those too.”