When the phone rang, Rakesh Manpat knew what instructions he had to pass on to his ward Apurvi Chandela, but more importantly, he knew what topic to strictly not mention. It was at the shooting World Cup in Munich last year, when Chandela was well on her way to winning what would have been her first ever World Cup gold medal, until a freak shot of 5.9 – an accident – resulted in a fourth-place finish in the women’s 10m air rifle event.
On Sunday, the 26-year-old had reached the final of the very same tournament. And though her coach didn’t want to talk about the ‘incident’ from last year, she drew inspiration from it. “We spoke about the tactics and changes, and then she reminded me about that one bad shot from last year,” Manpat recites what Chandela told him over phone. “‘This is the same match that I lost out last year. Now I’m going to go win it.”
Those were the final words Chandela told her coach before going on to vanquish the ghosts of the Munich fiasco last year, and help herself to her second World Cup gold of the year.
But it was from that trip to Munich last year that the Jaipur native started building the momentum that now sees her as one of the most consistent Indian shooters on the international circuit. En route, she came fourth at the World Championships in Changwon last year to earn India an Olympic quota, won a bronze at the Asian Games, gold at the New Delhi World Cup in January with a world record-breaking score in the final, rose to the world no. 1 spot, and has now topped the charts in Munich.
The latest achievement wasn’t a straightforward romp to the title. In fact, her winning score of 251.0 in the final was a mere 0.2 points higher than that of second-placed Luyao Wang of China. But it is for those nervy finishes that she has been training in the months leading up to the trip to Germany.
High competition at home helping Chandela
Since Anjali Bhagwat and Suma Shiroor quit the scene, India have struggled in the 10m air rifle event. But at the moment, there are five shooters who are consistently shooting world-class scores and setting the bar higher after every tournament. The quality at home has assisted Indian shooters' performances abroad. There's a dogfight to merely get into the team and it's even tougher to hang on to your place. Apurvi Chandela, who was criticised before for cracking under pressure, claims the level of competition at home has been critical for her to be able to handle the pressure in major international tournaments. The fact that Chandela isn't assured of a place in the Tokyo Olympics squad, even if theoretically, despite being world number 1 and winning two World Cup medals shows the depth India has in this event. Chandela and Anjum Moudgil have won two quotas for India in 10m air rifle, maximum a country can get. The NRAI has drafted a policy which states that the two highest-ranked shooters as per their system at the time of selection will represent the country at the Olympics instead of those who have earned the quota. Chandela, in all probability, will make the cut. But the kind of scores her compatriots are shooting, Chandela knows she can't take it for granted.
“Those close finishes are the expectation, even during the simulation matches we have in training,” Manpat says. “In almost every training session, we simulate a situation where the scores are tied and she has to play in a shoot-off. We put the tied scores at random, just to make sure she doesn’t get used to it. She has to be on her toes throughout. Last week, she was shooting some 635 in every simulated qualification session we practised, which is more than the world record. So all this has helped her perform the way she did today.”
Mental ‘coach’ Alexa
For over a month now, Manpat and Chandela have been adding more training exercises to improve her mental conditioning – the latest being the use of Amazon’s Alexa, which blares announcements to provide an atmosphere similar to an actual shooting range. Mental conditioning is key in training for her, because physically she still hasn’t recovered from the nerve injuries she suffered shortly before the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“Standing still for long durations is difficult for her because she starts experiencing a burning sensation,” Manpat had told The Indian Express in February. “Training for long hours was not advisable and there was no scope to do any cardio training. The finals are all about cardio because there are no breaks and you have to stand and shoot. So we worked a lot on keeping her mentally prepared.”
Even now, Chandela does not go through the same number of shots in practice as compared to other shooters. “Apurvi maybe has 50-80 shots in practice. Others do double of that,” Manpat says. “Which is what made her teammates very surprised by her result today.”
Chandela topped the qualification round with 633.0, followed by compatriot Elavenil Valarivan with 632.7. In the final, her lowest shot was 9.9 and she was the only player to hit a perfect 10.9 twice. But it was only from her last four shots that she managed to take the lead over her closest Chinese opponent.
Chandela knew very well what transpired the last time she was in Munich, when that freak shot of 5.9 took her from a potential gold to the what-could-have-been fourth. On Sunday though, before the final, she zeroed in on her target, announced it to her coach, and then showed the mental strength to go out and win it. Just as she said she would.