India’s first-ever Olympic quota in Skeet to break the shackles, a dozen consistent scores of 120-plus in the last one year, two women making the finals of the Asian Olympic qualifier, a bunch of 20-somethings determined to chase perfection and a world-class Italian coach steering India’s surge in what was hitherto shooting’s least achieving event in the country. Shivani Naik traces the upward curve of Olympic Skeet in India
It’s never really enough to clinch that perfect score of 10.9 or to sit smug with that world record of 400 or to have finished the day having blasted all the 25 clay birds in a round. The heroic high for a shooter is incomplete without recounting the tale of that perfect shot, and they will equally and vividly indulge their tragic failures turning raconteurs of their many misses, seeking catharsis and audience alike as they bare their hearts out.
Shooters love stories – their own and of their friends and rivals, but Olympic Skeet had next to none in India. Until Ennio Falco fetched up with the big guns and pithy prose.
Karni Singh won a silver in Trap at the 1962 World Championships in Cairo. India’s first Olympic medal came in Double Trap. Skeet – shot with a double barrel over and under and dubbed a left-handed sport where the gun’s not mounted – firmly remained a sideshow to all this history making, a sidecar even that would merrily but aimlessly tag along to international venues wherever the big brother shotgunners went, but never quite boasting any direction or drama of its own. Then Falco came along.
The 48-year-old Italian coach has helped India win medals in the last couple of years and for the first time ever, an Olympic quota, bounding out of the shadow of Trap and Double Trap. But it’s the swagger of the skeet boys and girls (two women made the six-competitor final at the Asian Olympic qualifying earlier this week) backed by steady scores, that portends that this sport is on the cusp of breaking out. That, and the emergence of the grandly named Angad Veer Singh Bajwa, a 21-year-old whose Virat Kohli-esque self-belief, they say, has the makings of a phenomena in a sport that has barely (or never) blipped on India’s sports radar.
Ennio Falco in his active shooting heyday (though his last World Championship medal came in 2013, so he never really faded out), witnessed the almighty storm a brash young man can kick up, when in 2005 he lost the World Championship gold to a 16-year-old Vincent Hancock. Skeet’s biggest sensation and gunning for a lasting legacy when he shoots for a hat-trick gold at Rio, the American Hancock has won the last two Olympic titles (by age 23), and had edged out Falco, 20 years his senior, and the remainder of the world when he stormed the Worlds as a teen. “He won at such a young age, he showed you don’t need to be 40 years to be a great in skeet,” Angad Bajwa says, spelling out his inspiration.
But among others, India’s skeet shooters revel in listening to and telling the stories of how their coach Falco, thrown off by Hancock’s freakish genius, rejigged his own game to return to relevance and prolong his own greatness to age 45. The other important tale that gets retold over and over again is how Falco – for 15 years until his marriage – would sleep in one small room on the range in Italy, where he learnt to tell from the mere sound whether a clay pigeon had been hit or not without having to look. India’s assorted skeet shooters – mostly hobby marksmen – would not miss the point that they had the sport’s modern day greats in their midst. It would trigger off a chain reaction of realisation that they needed to make the most of the man’s knowledge and efforts.
Mairaj Ahmed Khan had been shooting average scores for a few years now – he was India’s best, but not much of a name on the world level. “We were tourists for many years,” he says sheepishly, “and though I wanted to get better unfortunately we had no clue how to go about improving.” Dawdling somewhere in the Top 50 in the world, Mairaj would shoot 118-119 on a good day, but couldn’t break what they call skeet’s ‘sound barrier’: a score of 120.
“120’s like a century in cricket,” says the 39-year-old, who had played a spot of junior cricket – CK Nayudu and Vinoo Mankad competitions, as batsman, and also alongside Md Saif and Rizwan Shamshad in Khurja and even batted for Jamia on Delhi’s circuit with Virender Sehwag. “You score 120 in skeet and people start respecting you,” he explains, also recalling the days when no one even noticed the Indians competing internationally. “Falco brought in belief, sharpened techniques and told us how to prepare for a competition,” he says.
After some indifferent luck at the CWG and Asiad last year, Mairaj would peak too early for the Gabala World Cup, go back to training for 145-150 days and then re-emerge shooting steady scores at Cyprus (121, 122) and finally win the quota at Lonato, a range where he distinctly remembers coming last on his first trip there.
“Once Falco came, people would tell us you should be lucky to be born in India. You get the best guns, ammunition, and now the best coach. You have to deliver now, or you never will,” he says. The excuses had run out for India’s brat pack, and they would respond to the soft spoken but firm Falco, who detoxed the team of its lethargy in two years.
New fitness mantra
Cheema, an India team shooter, insists he’s not drawn towards clubbing or junk food now, with Falco cleaning up entire lifestyles in the Indian camp. “I’ve been shooting casually for 15 years. Now all my habits have changed – eating, sleeping on time. I used to be 110 kg now I’m into fitness. Partying seems like a waste of time when you have the lifetime opportunity to train with the world’s best skeet coach,” he says.
Skeet’s one of the more united of all of India’s various shooting squads, with a team culture enforced by the coach who everyone respects. “He insists on having dinner together when we are abroad, and there’s a good vibe,” Mairaj says.
It helps that Falco – despite being an Atlanta Games gold medallist – does not shove one unified technique down everyone’s throats. “He can help three different shooters perfect three different types of techniques,” Smit Singh, another young skeet shooter who shot a national mark of 123 in 2013, says. “But this is also a coach who thinks losing is a crime – so he’s setting very high standards.” Three skeeters shot 121 at the last Nationals, and an Indian made the Asian Games final. “After Mairaj everyone thinks it’s possible now,” says the 24-year-old. The floodgates are bound to open.
Man Singh went to Mayo, has trained under American Josh Lakatos who won silver behind Falco at Atlanta, and crucially remembers a time in Indian Skeet when range regulars would mob him for a score of 116. “Back then – not long ago – 112 was a big score in India. And even a rubbish score like I shot today (116) would’ve been applauded. This generation of shooters has a fire in them and anyone from us 6 can shoot real big. It’s a good crop. Falco’s added finesse and cut out the rubbish,” he says.
The coach himself is a disappointed man soon after Angad Bajwa misses out on finals (118) at the Karni Singh Ranges – that would’ve fetched India the second quota – by one bird. “We’re dreaming something big,” he starts.
He met Manavjit Singh Sandhu when the strapping Indian won gold trap at the 2006 Worlds, and recalls wondering how India managed to turn out such miserable results in skeet. With the rule changes, he’s focussed on increasing the speed, and working on faster triggering. When he started, his basic question of ‘Were you comfortable shooting?’ would get him blank, doltish stares. “Now they can tell me exactly what’s going wrong,” says the legend who won five silvers at the World Championships and three bronze, along with three team gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze apart from his Olympic championship.
Skeet’s all about feel and smooth trigger action, and the Italian is thrilled his shooters are catching up, and working on fastish speeds that dominate international competition.
“I would love to say the secret to all success is eating pasta – I am Italian,” he laughs, “but I come from Capua in South Italy – close to Naples, but not Naples! We know the nuanced difference between this pasta and that. We know what works for whom,” he says, explaining his philosophy of training every Indian uniquely. Camped in Delhi for long, he is quite enamoured by how Indian democracy works. “I’ll teach them everything, but I’m also learning about India’s history. I want to show how democratic way of coaching shooting can also work,” he ends.
He wants to write skeet’s ultimate story, something he can sit back and later tell the world after all the hard work’s done.