Mairaj Ahmed Khan buries 15 years of pain by clinching 2016 Rio Olympic quota in skeet

Mairaj Ahmed Khan's qualification in skeet shooting is a step forward for Indian shooters in the category.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai | Updated: September 23, 2015 2:29:06 pm

Mairaj Ahmed Khan, Mairaj Ahmed Khan India, India Mairaj Ahmed Khan, Mairaj Ahmed Khan India shooter, India shooter Mairaj Ahmed Khan, Mairaj Ahmed Khan shooting, Mairaj Ahmed Khan Trap Concaverde, Mairaj Ahmed Khan Olympic, Sports news, indian express 39-year-old Mairaj Ahmed Khan is the first Indian to qualify for the skeet event at the Olympics.

As the Indian contingent approached the shooting range in Lonato, Italy, Mairaj Ahmed Khan started talking to himself. Ghosts of a past failure 15 years ago at the same venue, that was to host the Shotgun World Championship, continued to haunt the skeet shooter. Khan had appeared at the Trap Concaverde for his first international tournament, a World Cup, but finished last. Last week he was in search of a maiden Olympic spot.

“I remember flopping 15 years ago very clearly. So I kept telling myself that I was a better shooter now. Stronger, faster, experienced,” he explains. The self-psyching made the difference for the 39-year-old, who became the first Indian to qualify for the quadrennial event in skeet.

At the event itself, barring the top two, Khan and five others in the top eight had tied with a score of 122 out of a total 125, inviting a shootoff. He eventually finished seventh. Nonetheless, since the top six had already qualified for Rio, the Indian was granted one of the two spots available.

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Having an Indian compete in skeet shooting — which is often considered the weakest discipline for Indian shooting — at the Olympics is a step forward in the category. The shortage of proficiency is what National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) president Raninder Singh credits to the lack of a coach for the national team in the past. This time around though, the team was armed with the tutelage of 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medal winner Ennio Falco.

“It’s the same crop of shooters we’ve had. So bringing a coach in has brought a technical touch to their performances,” he says.

Boosting participation

Meanwhile, securing qualification, Singh asserts, will increase the level of participation in the field. “Someone securing a berth in skeet means the glass-ceiling is broken. Now younger athletes know that they can stay in skeet and achieve success,” he adds.

Khan, in turn, has become the face of the discipline. It’s been just over 15 years since Khan, who refuses to be called a ‘veteran,’ took up the sport professionally. Prior to that, his first love was cricket. In fact, as a 10-year-old he finished third in an U-12 50 metre rifle competition. And with the resulting Rs 30 prize money he won, he bought a cricket bat.

Khan recalls himself being a powerful and aggressive top-order batsmen. “Most players used to take 60-70 balls to score 80 or so. I would do that in 30 or 40 balls,” he mentions. Khan excelled on the field and was eventually named skipper of the U-19 Uttar Pradesh team. He even batted with his college junior Virender Sehwag at the other end when they were students at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. “Maybe Sehwag got inspired by my aggressive batting,” he jokes.

At that stage shooting had become a weekend hobby. He preferred the outdoor skeet shooting setup rather than the ‘noisy’ indoor shooting disciplines. Since the clay targets — pigeons — were also red like a cricket ball, the concentration he needed to find the target aided his cricket.

It was at the Delhi range that he bumped into former national trap coach Timur Matoian. “He had been watching me for a few weekends. Finally he came up to me and said that my technique was terrible. But he offered to help me correct it if I got into shooting seriously,” he recollects. By then Sehwag had already moved to the Indian cricket team, and Khan realised his own cricket career would not go further. “It seemed like a natural move to make,” he adds.

Growing up with guns

Hailing from Khurja, in Bulandshahr district of UP, Khan grew up with guns in his household. His father had been a state level trap shooter. “He didn’t go professional because he had to look after the family businesses,” claims Khan. “But I used to accompany him to all his practice sessions and tournaments. So I grew up watching him shoot,” he further states.

As a 24-year-old he took up skeet professionally. He rose through the ranks, winning the national championship three times, a gold medal in team skeet event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and another team gold in the 2011 Asian Shotgun Championship.

After the Asian event, he was hoping to make his Olympic debut in 2012. Yet, during a World Cup qualification in Doha, Qatar, Khan was accused of poaching in his home state. “That distracted me and cost me the Olympic place. When I got back home the cases were dismissed because of lack of evidence. All the photos provided were morphed and the judge could see that. Besides, I was in a different country at the same time,” he says.

Qualification this time around just makes the moment even better for Khan. Every single accolade is well preserved at home, including the envelope that contained the Rs 30 prize money from his maiden tournament. But for Khan, the chance to go to Rio is above everything he has achieved. “I’ve always been Mairaj Ahmed Khan, the national champion. Now I’ll be Mairaj Ahmed Khan, the Olympian,” he says.

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