Bharti Ghatkar did not miss the scarcely audible gasp that echoed around the finals hall. It was the first time she looked up. Her daughter Pooja was competing in the lane in front of her. But Bharti sat in the stands, reading Ganesh mantra during the women’s 10 metre air rifle final of the ISSF World Cup.
After the 15th shot, though, she stopped. Pooja had shot mid-to-high 10s till then, which gave her the lead. Pooja’s blinder, which assists shooters in aiming at the target, started giving problems. The ‘oooohhh’ from the crowd forced Bharti to fold her book and look at the scoreboard: 9.9, it read.
Memories from past tournaments came flooding back. So many times had the 28-year-old been in strong positions only to shoot one bad shot and miss out on a medal. It even cost her an Olympic quota last year. “I was worried after that shot. I wondered if she could recover,” Bharti says.
At the makeshift commentator’s box, Gagan Narang shuffled in his chair. On Thursday night, he had sent her a brief text, advising to be prepared for any eventualities. Like Bharti, he too wondered if Pooja had it in her to overcome this mental barrier that has stunted her growth.
She did. With her blinder troubling her, she shot with one eye closed. Luckily for her, the improvisation worked. Pooja shot a 10.0, 10.4 and 10.6 to hang on to third place, and finally win that elusive World Cup medal in the women’s 10m air rifle. In the tournament’s first event, she had won India’s first medal.
China’s Mengyao Shi won the gold with a world record score of 252.1. Her compatriot Lijie Dong clinched the silver with 248.9. Pooja had competed in two finals before but her previous best at the World Cup were fourth-place finishes in Bangkok and Baku last year. Call it mother’s instinct, but Bharti says she knew they’d return with a medal from Delhi. “I don’t know why or how. I don’t even understand shooting – other mothers know what is happening on the range. I don’t. So it wasn’t like I could read her game. But something told me she would stand on the podium today,” Bharti says.
It wasn’t the first time Bharti’s intuition was right. A decade ago, she decided to sell her house to support Pooja’s shooting career. The shooter was just seven when her father passed away. With no one else to fall back on, Bharti ran the house with the modest income she earned as a school teacher.
To spend more time with her daughter, she left the job and began taking private tuitions. Pooja, meanwhile, caught the shooting bug at school, where she was part of the NCC. A gold medal at a junior meet further attached her to the sport, which is when Bharti foresaw a problem. “I knew financially it would be a problem. So in my mind, even though I was happy that she was winning, I was worried how to support her growing ambitions,” Bharti, 55, says.
Bharti first researched about the sport, online and on site at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune. After she was convinced that a career could be made out of it, she would take the biggest decision of her life. “I realised this was going to be a very costly affair and we would needs lakhs in the first few years,” she says. “There was no point delaying anything. What had to be done, had to be done.”
So she sold their house and rented a small place just outside the Balewadi Sports Complex. The money was carefully invested in Pooja’s shooting. “For the first few years, I borrowed Gagan’s rifle. I purchased one of my own pretty late,” says Pooja, who won the Asian Championship gold in 2014.
Narang, the coach
Narang has been a guiding force, she says. Last year, she was going through a serious confidence crisis after missing out on the Rio berth. During the same period, India’s rifle coach Stanislas Lapidus was shown the door following allegations of sexual harassment by some woman shooters.
Pooja was lost, and decided to approach Narang to be her full-time coach. Or as she puts it, ‘emotionally blackmailing’ him to get on board. “It took a lot of convincing, to be honest,” says Narang. “Since I am an active shooter, I had to think about my training and spot in the team as well.”
For quite a few years, Narang has been unofficially helping several young shooters. But before this, he hadn’t coached anyone full time. He eventually agreed. And for two months, focused on preparing Pooja mentally while fine-tuning her technique.
“She got herself in medal-winning positions several times but wasn’t able to get the job done. So we focused on the physical and mental aspects a lot,” Narang says.
The Delhi World Cup was the first real test. It was a strong field comprising Asian Games gold medallist Najmeh Khidmati and several past world champions. The qualifying mark of 416.9 was high as well but Pooja, who scored 418, didn’t flinch. Unlike before, she was more aggressive in the final, putting herself in contention from the beginning.
“These are the biggest positives we take from here,” Pooja says.
Her mother holds the medal but instantly reminds her that this doesn’t count for much. “We both have sacrificed a lot. Pooja has made more than me. Medals are good but we haven’t made these sacrifices for a World Cup medal. This is a part of the journey for Tokyo Olympics,” Bharti says. “Bappa has blessed us. We will do well.”
Deepak finishes fifth
Deepak Kumar, competing in his maiden World Cup, finished fifth in men’s 10m air rifle final with a score of 185.4, while Ravi Kumar was placed eighth with 122.0 after having made the cut for the eight-man final. They were fourth and sixth in the qualification round. In the women’s trap event, Rajeshwari Kumari (17th), Seema Tomar (22nd) and Manisha Kheer (29th) failed to clear the qualification hurdle.
In men’s Rapid Fire Pistol Stage 1 of qualification, Neeraj Kumar was placed fifth with a score of 290. China’s Zhiming Lu topped the first Precision stage with a score of 295. Olympian Gurpreet Singh lay in 12th position with a score of 285 and the third Indian, Harpreet Singh will go into the Rapid Fire stage in 17th position with a score of 281. Only the top six qualify for the final.
In the first day of Men’s Trap qualifiers, India’s Zoravar Singh Sandhu shot 70 to lie in sixth position. Spain’s former world champion and World No. 9, Alberto Fernandez led the field with a perfect score of 75, in an event, which also has the reigning Olympic Champion, Josip Glasnovic of Croatia, in the field. The second stage and finals for both these events will be held on Saturday.