Suma Shirur had struck a rough patch just before the qualification deadline for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Two years earlier, she was a part of the successful Indian shooting contingent that dominated the Commonwealth Games in Manchester – Shirur herself bagging a gold and a silver medal. But now, with the pressure of expectation, frustration grew rapidly as she tried and failed repeatedly to make the cut.
That’s when she got a call from her old mentor, Bhishmaraj Bam. “I was struggling to shoot well, and he calls and says that I need to go to the Olympics as a top contender rather than just a qualifier,” she recalls. “But we spoke and we made an entire mental plan of what all I need to do.”
In the last chance at qualification, at the Asian Championships in Kuala Lumpur, she shot a perfect score of 400 to win gold and set a new world record. In Bam, Shirur and a host of professional athletes across sports — the likes of Rahul Dravid, Geet Sethi, Aparna Popat and Kamlesh Mehta — had found an emotional guide. Last week, the veteran sports psychologist breathed his last, aged 78.
For Bam, however, there was a strong fondness for shooting — he was a former president of the Maharashtra Rifle Association. And in the trio of Shirur, Anjali Bhagwat and Deepali Deshpande, whom he fondly called chimnya (sparrows), he found his greatest disciples. In fact, when the three qualified for the Athens Games, he decided to present them with a gift. “He bought us identical silk saris,” Bhagwat says.
Their journey began back around 1988, at the MRA. Shirur remembers sitting on a plastic chair at the range, Bhagwat and Deshpande also seated nearby. It was a Tuesday tradition for Bam to have the girls seated, with eyes shut, as he’d have them visualize winning a major tournament, and standing on the podium to collect it. “We had barely been introduced to shooting, and even before we became champions, he made us feel like we had already won. Later when we were in those situations, it felt like we’d been winning for years,” Shirur says.
At that time, sports psychology was still an alien concept in India. But Bam’s focus on strengthening the mind paid off. “Technically, we were 30-40 percent weaker than the opponents. But we were all so calm and mentally strong that it made up for our shortages,” says Bhagwat.
Deshpande, meanwhile, asserts that Bam’s involvement became even greater when she was appointed junior national coach in 2012, especially since he was always one for grooming talent. “Just a few days before he passed away, he told me he wanted to write a new book on shooting. Everything in the sport had changed since he wrote his last one, so he wanted to put an updated guide for the young players now.”
It was a project that went with his personality, of helping an individual in any way possible – be it sponsorship, training, or a pep-talk to boost confidence. It’s a trait that earned him a tagline the girls borrowed from a prominent pain-relieving cream. “Ek Bam, sab kaam,” says Deshpande.
His importance of visualizing turned out to be an art he didn’t restrict only to the field of sport itself. “There was a lady he knew in Nashik who was in the last stages of cancer. He met her and told her to visualize making a full recovery. She recovered in a few months,” Bhagwat says. And it was a lecture on visualizing that he was delivering in Nasik when he suffered the fatal heart-attack.
But the trio remembers him fondly for another lecture. One that he had delivered just a few months back. In it he had a message specifically for the three ‘chimnya.’ “I thought they were sparrows, but they turned out to be swans.”