His first bow was a wooden contraption, and the first-ever makeshift archery targets were placed on a pile-up of cowdung ‘uple’, Haryana’s ubiquitous bitauda. When Akash Malik went onto win a silver in the men’s recurve archery at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, it was the culmination of a journey that had started from the humblest of beginnings.
Akash’s first bow cost almost a third of father Narender Malik’s monthly income of around Rs 11,000, But the 40-year-old farmer from Umra village near Hansi in Haryana still remembers the first time his son Akash asked for an archery bow.
Akash had accompanied a friend to the Umra Archery Centre, and successfully strung a bow on his first attempt. It meant that the cotton farmer agreed to part with a large chunk of his earnings, a princely sum of Rs 3500. With their house located in a field about four kms from the village, a young Akash would walk or cycle with his father to the archery centre to train under coach Manjeet Singh Malik.
On Thursday, as the 16-year-old archer became the second Indian archer to win a medal with a silver after going down to USA’s Trenton Cowles, the youngster remembered the early training sessions in the fields in the village. “Archery ke bare mein kuch nahi pata tha. Main sochta tha ki khet main shikar kar rahe hain yeh log. But one day I went to a friend’s house and as I successfully strung the bow, I told my father to get me a bow. My father is a cotton farmer and it was difficult for him to get me a bow worth Rs 3500. But he got me a bow and I started training under Manjeet sir,” he recalls.
India has twice infamously missed out on Olympic medals after the archers couldn’t negotiate whimsical winds, but the youngster showed good skills in testing conditions. “The training sessions happened in the fields and here in Argentina too conditions were windy. I was aiming to shoot like I do at home and it helped me,” shared Akash.
With the closest archery centres in cities like Chandigarh, Kurukshetra or Sonepat, a young Akash had never heard about the sport. Self-trained coach and village native Manjeet Singh Malik, who studied at Nagpur University, had seen some archery tournaments in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and thought about opening the archery centre in the village on leased land in 2011.
With only three trainees under him, the coach would train the kids with wooden bows and targets placed on the bitauda (mounds of cow dung). Akash joined the academy in 2012 and would train with a rudimentary bow for domestic competitions.
The coach remembers the struggles his archers faced. “I was fascinated by the game. Haryana wins medals in all sports so I thought why not in archery also. I would attend competitions just to see the archers train. In 2011, when I started in the village there were three boys and I took a small piece of land on lease. The villagers did not know anything about the sport and would call me Shikari or Rambo,” he remembers.
Later when three of his trainees won team gold in U-18 nationals in Vijayawada in 2013, the villagers started sending their children to train. All of them trained with wooden bows in the Indian round and as national medals started accumulating, they would earn cash prizes ranging from Rs 2 to 3 lakh from Haryana government and progress to professional bows.
Now more than 75 archers, including more than 30 girls train in the village with 13 targets. Some parents have also taken loans for getting bows, shares the coach.
Akash first burst on the national scene with a gold medal in the Junior Nationals in Jharkhand in 2015, the same year his senior from the village, Robin won a medal in a ranking tournament in Korea.
Last year, Akash won the gold medal in the Youth Olympic Games qualifying event in Dhaka, Bangladesh before being part of the gold medal winning team in the Asian Cup Stage 1 tournament in Bangkok, Thailand this March.
The youngster was also part of bronze medal men’s winning team in Asia Cup Stage 2 in Philippines apart from the bronze with Ridhi in the mixed team event.
Training in tough conditions
“His biggest strength has been his balance and the technique. The fact that he started with a wooden bow means that he adjusted well to the professional bows later. At the academy in the village, sometimes temperatures would reach more than 46 degrees in the fields. But Akash would train whether it would rain or in extreme heat. In Argentina, it was windy in the earlier rounds, but he showed his maturity. It was raining lightly in the final but he made a comeback after the first two rounds. His medal is the biggest for the academy and when he comes back, all the trainees would seek his autograph,” shared Manjeet.
The youngster currently trains at Army Sports Institute, Pune and it means he has been staying away from home since last ten months. Akash’s medal has also meant that the youngster would get a cash award of Rs one crore and 25 lakhs from the Haryana government “Akash hi hamein teer aur dhanush ke bare main batata hai. As a child, he would often watch the Dushehra festival and ask for dhanush and baan. Hamare liye toh Dushehra kal hi ho gaya jab Akash ne bow ke sath medal jita.Par hamein khel ka kuch pata nahi tha.”
Sometimes, he would also borrow money from relatives and friends But when he won the medal in mini nationals in Vijaywada, I told him this is more than real gold for us. Whatever cash awards he has got, he spends the money in buying new bows and arrows and this time too, I am sure he will get a new bow. Ab bade Olympics mein medal jeetna hai,” Narender Malik says.