It was a sudden and serendipitous initiation to shooting for Apurvi Chandela. For the longest part, the 22-year-old trained herself to become a sports journalist. Targets and trigger were never on her mind.
Until the morning of August 11, 2008. As Abhinav Bindra stepped on to podium at Beijing Games to claim independent India’s first-ever gold medal, thousands of miles away in Jaipur, a teenager had decided to pick up a rifle herself.
“It’s totally random. I liked watching sports a lot. But since I hadn’t played any seriously, I thought the next best thing would be to become a sports journalist,” Apurvi chuckles. “But seeing Bindra win the gold, I thought why not give it a shot?”
Apurvi’s father, Kuldeep, took her to a local shooting range in Jaipur where she first tried a pistol. “I wasn’t comfortable with it though,” she says. A few minutes later, she re-emerged from the weapons room with a rifle. And in her first attempt, she shot a perfect 10. Since then, there has been no looking back.
Last week, Apurvi became only the second Indian shooter to book a quota for the country for next year’s Rio Olympics, courtesy her podium finish at the Changwon World Cup. She won the bronze medal in a tense 10m air rifle final, and celebrated in her own understated way — glancing at her family in the stands, smiling gently and acknowledging them with a wave.
It’s a ritual of sorts now. Her family travels with her at every tournament she takes part in. Her father has maintained a record of all her scores since her first tryst at the Jaipur range in 2008. Her mother is a companion at all tournaments, domestic and international. Apurvi’s extended family too joins her on the road at times. They urge her to be more expressive after winning the medal.
Like Bindra, the reticent shooter chooses to conceal her emotions. “I always tell them I am happy I won, but I am like that. I can’t be over-expressive. Even if I have a bad match, my reaction remains the same. It’s better not to get overjoyed after wins,” Apurvi says.
Weak link no more
Till not so long ago, women’s 10m air rifle was seen as a weak link in an otherwise strong Indian shooting contingent. Failure to qualify for the London Olympics in this category further highlighted the decline. None of the shooters could match the legacy set by Anjali Bhagwat until Apurvi and another young shooter Ayonika Paul, also 22, emerged a couple of years back.
“Internationally, there might not have been too many medals for us but within the country the competition has been immense. There’s hardly much that could separate the top 20 shooters in the country. So the shooting scene was always healthy and highly competitive, which assisted my progress,” Apurvi says.
The reigning national champion is ‘surprised’ at the rate at which she has progressed though. Last year, she won the Commonwealth Games gold in Glasgow, which was her first major triumph. She achieved the feat despite battling acute pain after tearing her ligament. It was a testimony to her physical and mental toughness, which she displayed once again during the tight final last week, where she did not crumble under pressure.
Earning a quota, however, is just the beginning. The stringent qualification criteria set by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) means she is not assured of a place in the Indian contingent for the Games despite winning the quota. Apurvi scored 185.6 points en route the bronze. But she was 23.5 points behind gold medallist Pejcic Snjezana of Croatia and 22.1 points adrift of second-placed Ivana Maksimovic. “My target is to improve my scores. The good thing is that by winning the quota place in the first World Cup itself, the pressure is off me and I can now focus on my game,” she says.