In her early days of pistol shooting at Panchkula, a young Yashaswini Deswal would often search for videos of champion shooters on her father SS Deswal’s computer.
Among the videos she searched were those of 2004 Olympic champion Olena Kostevych. On Sunday, as the 22-year-old Deswal became women’s 10m Air Pistol world champion edging out the Ukrainian to claim India’s ninth Olympic quota in Rio de Janeiro, it was a surreal moment for the Haryana shooter.
“When I started shooting, I would watch her videos and she remains my idol. To win the gold medal and the Olympic quota defeating her in the final is a moment to remember and when we congratulated each other, I was trying to control my emotions. Even though I led throughout the final, I knew that a shooter like her can always come back. But my focus was to execute each shoot as per my training and preparation and not to think about who I was competing against,” Deswal told The Indian Express. Deswal shot a score of 582 to top the qualification before winning the gold medal, as she led from the second series onwards.
Catching the bug
While her father, who is now DG, ITBP, Delhi, was posted in Gurgaon in 2010, a young Yashaswini would accompany him to watch the full bore rifle events of the 2010 Commonwealth Games. It ignited her interest in the sport and on her return to their Panchkula home, she also accompanied her father to a police shooting range, where she first saw pistol shooting.
“I was fascinated by the idea of guns and shooting. One of my uncles was in the Indian Army and when we visited him, we would get to see the small weapons during display functions held at his unit. When we came back to Panchkula, my father took me to one of the police ranges near Panchkula and I tried pistol shooting there. While the guns were too big for my physique at that time, I thought I can give pistol shooting a try and that’s how it began for me,” recalls Deswal.
ISSF jury member Tejinder Singh Dhillon soon took her Deswal under his wings and the youngster started shooting with a second-hand pistol in 2012. The next year, Deswal persuaded her father to make her a 10m range at their residence at Panchkula, and her mother Saroj, the Chief Income Tax Commissioner, Panchkula, would often spend hours waiting for her daughter to finish her training.
“Yashaswini was very particular about her studies and as Panchkula does not have a range, she asked us to get one made at home. But it also meant that sometimes she would end her training sessions at 9-10 p.m. As any mother, I would be worried about her diet schedule but knew that shooting is like having her favourite food,” recalls the mother.
The same time, coach Dhillon would face another challenge. Yashaswini was still underweight for her age and apart from the basics, the coach would also formulate a diet plan.
Success and a slump
The youngster won the junior national title in Pune in 2014 before finishing fifth in the 2014 Youth Olympics at Nanjing, China. The next year, Deswal claimed the silver medal at the Delhi nationals, shooting 384 in qualification. The same year, she shot a qualification score of 386 to claim the bronze medal in Czech Republic before missing a chance to earn the quota for the 2016 Olympics when she finished fourth in the 10m air Pistol final at the Asian Shooting Championships in Delhi, despite shooting 387 in qualification.
But her scores in the qualification at the international level would hover around 375 at the international level in 2016, as she won the silver medal in Junior world cup in Suhl. Before the new format of 60 shots was introduced in 2017, Deswal became the junior world champion the same year when she shot 385 in qualification.
“The thing about Yashaswini was that she shot well in the trials and won medals but her qualification scores would show fluctuations. During that time, we worked upon her grip alignment and it was also about clearing her thought process. When the format changed to 60 shots, we spent time on holding the gun for long and focus on the sight and maintaining stability,” says Dhillon, a former IG of Police, CRPF.
Compatriot Manu Bhaker would win the world junior championship only in 2018. But while Bhaker would win medals at the CWG and senior World Cups, Deswal narrowly missed medals at the international level.
Ski and mountaineering expert
The Panjab University law student has also done a diploma in skiing and spent some time practising the sport in Auli, Uttarakhand this year. While Deswal needs to maintain her form this year to book a berth for the 2020 Olympics, getting a chance to visit Japan, which has hosted the Winter Olympics twice, is an extra incentive.
“Skiing and mountaineering help me relax my mind and also offer the same kind of thrill which is in shooting. I have read that the country has got some good ski slopes and maybe I can visit them later,” said the youngster.