Anjali Vedpathak-Bhagwat has been one of the pioneers of Indian shooting. From being a finalist in 2000 Sydney Olympics and going on to participate in the subsequent two Olympics in Athens and Beijing to being a world No. 1 in 10m air rifle, Anjali has seen it all.
“If not for our generation, Indian shooting would have been 10 years behind today,” Anjali tells News18.com from her shooting centre in Balewadi, Pune as she ponders over the Indian shooters’ prospects at the Tokyo Games that is less than a fortnight away.
The soft-spoken Anjali, Deepali Deshpande, Suma Shirur, Abhinav Bindra, Jaspal Rana, to name just a few, were the shooters who paved the way through their struggles in the 1990s and 2000s and brought Indian shooting to where it is today – world beaters.
Excerpts from the conversation:
India will field their most number of shooters in the Olympics ever – 15. What do you expect from them in Tokyo?
The team is very strong. The ups and downs in performances are always there. It’s very difficult to predict results and expect consistency as well. They are in a very good form since the last two years, right from CWG Youth Games, Manu (Bhaker) and Saurabh (Chaudhary) have been performing at their peak. They were planning to peak for the 2020 Olympics, when it was originally scheduled.
We could have confidently competed in the Olympics and won the medals if they were not postponed. The planning could not yield results because the Olympics got postponed. For six months, the situation was very weird psychologically and practically. They could not practice. You can do fitness training but endurance training is different. Everyone cannot have a shooting range at home or have online shooting matches.
Somehow, National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) managed to give space at its Tughlakabad shooting range for practice for the squad, but that was very limited. Psychological differences or barriers will be there. At the corner of your mind, you know how you are practicing, where the world is going. Europe and other countries were open for practice. In the bubble, our shooters used to practice. The environment was very different for them. They could not go for any competition.
The World Cup in New Delhi (March 2021, India topped the medals table with 15 gold, 9 silver, 6 bronze medals) was a very good thing that happened for the Indian shooters. They could test their level and plan their strategy. The rest of the world could catch up with our standards as our shooters were shooting well. Now, the situation is very different. Watching standard, having better facilities of practice and preparation, the rest of the world has also reached our standards. It is going to be very tough competition. That complex will be there at the back of your mind that all are of the same standard and it is going to be very tough competition.
The Olympics has its own aura. The World Championships is different. The competitors are the same. In fact, you have less competitors in the Olympics, but that still makes a lot of difference. The Olympics is the ultimate dream for any athlete. The whole world is watching. Handling yourself in the final is a test. Along with practical preparation, your psychological condition will matter a lot in the Olympics.
While some of the shooters have already been to the Olympics before, for some others, this will be their maiden Olympics. How different will it be for the individuals considering that it is going to be under so many restrictions?
This is going to be Covid Olympics as everything will be different, particularly for those who have already been there like Rahi Sarnobat, Apurvi Chandela and Sanjeev Rajput. It is very different, huge Games Village, all athletes are there, right from a veteran to a newcomer. That feeling is so different that you cannot explain in words, the proud feeling that you are there. Everything is so special about the Olympics.
This is going to be a very different Olympics with a limited number of officials, maybe no spectators. You cannot interact with other athletes. Psychologically, it is going to be very different for senior shooters and it is going to be low key for the beginners.
While India did very well in the New Delhi World Cup in March this year, the results in the recent World Cup in Croatia were not encouraging (one gold, one silver, 2 bronze to finish 10th in medal standings). Is it a concern going to Tokyo?
I don’t know if it’s good or bad. Maybe a few must have tried new things, few may not have wanted to peak before the Olympics and wanted to peak in Tokyo. I don’t know what the strategy or the planning behind the results was. But, the results will have an impact on the shooters. For first-timers in the Olympics like Manu, Saurabh, Abhishek Verma, they have a bright chance and have nothing to lose. But for shooters like Rahi, Tejaswini, Sanjeev, this may be their last Olympics. They are experienced but that additional burden will be there.
I feel Sanjeev, Rahi are in fantastic form. It is how they click on that particular day that matters. The body language, the first thought on that day will make a lot of difference. With what thought you enter the Olympic range tells about that day’s results. It is very difficult to predict the medals. Everybody’s performance will be very good, no doubt.
I am particularly confident about the mixed events because we have good combinations. Manu and Saurabh (in 10m air pistol) are the best pair. In other countries, one half is strong and the other half is weak. Here, both are high-class shooters. In 10m air rifle, we have Elavenil Valarivan (world No. 1) and Divyansh Singh Panwar (world No. 2), both have experience of shooting high-class finals. This will be their first Olympics, that aggressiveness, the will to win is very high.
They have a bright chance of winning medals in mixed team. I am equally positive about Rahi and Sanjeev. Performances will be very good. Can’t predict about medals as the rest of the world has caught up with our standards. There is always a surprise winner in every Olympics.
Talking of surprises, did Abhinav Bindra winning gold in 2008 Beijing Games (10m air rifle) come as a surprise?
No, not at all. We were very sure that he was going to win a medal but not sure of its colour. In Athens 2004, he had very bad luck (finished 7th). The floor where he was standing was not good. He could not win a medal there. We have seen his hard work. He was giving his 100%. Whatever possible he could, he did. A medal was expected. When he entered the final in Beijing, we were sure he was going to win, but gold was a bonus.
How much has Bindra winning gold changed the Indian shooting scene?
Abhinav Bindra broke all the barriers. He made the impossible possible. New shooters came with the mindset that they can win at the Olympics. That mindset has changed, and that is why we are getting results in the World Championships and the World Cups, both senior and juniors.
What has changed in Indian shooting since Rio 2016, where Bindra finished 4th but none others entered the semifinals. Now India are among the favourites?
Planning for the Rio Games was very bad. All the shooters were training on their own. In between, they went to other countries where weather conditions were different. They were practicing in cold regions whereas Rio was hot and humid. Everything went haywire. There was no proper planning with one coach looking after 5-6 shooters.
This time, Indian coaches are there and they have practical experience of that standard – Jaspal Rana, Samaresh Jung, Deepali Deshpande, and Suma Shirur. They have been to Olympics, know what Olympics is, what the mental conditions are. A coach can teach up to a certain level. Beyond that, it is the skill of that particular athlete. Coach’s responsibility is just to maintain the mindset and look after the athlete psychologically. The coach looks after the mental condition, behaviour of the shooters. The wavelength is better with Indian coaches than with foreign coaches.
Foreign coaches have no sense of what customs we follow, the environment we live in. The Indian coaches have seen young shooters from close distance, know their behaviour, their pattern. It is very easy to give feedback, maintain good relationships, and have good rapport. It is very good for the squad as the bonding is there. That is the plus point of Indian coaches handling them. Between two shooters, there is one (Indian) coach. That personal attention is there and that is why we could see this improvement and consistency in the performances.
What has the postponement of Olympics done to the shooters – kept them waiting, made them more anxious or given them more time to prepare and improve their skills?
The postponement has hampered the planning of the shooters. In the waiting period, you get more confused, unnecessary thoughts come in, unwanted efforts are put in. That confusion creates a lot of doubts in the mind. The (lockdown) time did not provide good facilities. The shooting ranges were not open, the environment was not free. They did not go for competitions. They were only training and it becomes boring. At times, you need to test yourself. Even between the squad you play matches, that is a different experience.
But shooting with other countries, even though the competition levels may not be the same, psychologically it does make a difference, standing on the podium, receiving medal for the country gives you that push.
Today’s shooters seem to be fearless, aren’t they?
Times are changing. In our days, going to foreign countries was special. Watching the foreigners shoot with us, from Germany and Russia, we had that complex in our minds. Today’s youngsters are ‘bindaas’ (carefree). They have no pressure.
Today, shooters from other countries are in awe of us. Indian shooters start their training with professional attitude. The infrastructure, the facilities, sponsors, expertise, good selection system, NRAI encouraging the shooters, everything is available. They all start with a good environment. That attitude is good.
When I was shooting, importing a rifle was a headache. We had to apply, wait for approval for six months, clear the customs. Now everything is available easily and most accessories are available in India with former shooters involved. In those days, just to have shooting shoes used to take two-and-a-half months. Now it is available in two days.
If you were to do a SWOT analysis of the Indian contingent, what would you say about the team?
As a responsible athlete, we should be focussing on their positive and good qualities. This is not the time for correction. They have already crossed that phase. Whatever you have learnt, bank on it. Continue with your positive thinking. The learning stage is over now. Whatever is in your hands, build up on them. The Indian shooters have registered good performance. They should have confidence in what they have done. Have positive thinking all the way to Tokyo.
How have your Olympics experiences been – a finalist in 2000 Sydney but not advance in 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing?
2000 was my first Olympics, where I was a very new shooter. I was an amateur. I did not know what Olympics was. I went with excitement because 20 days before the Olympics only I got to know I got a wild card. There was no special preparation for the Olympics. Fortunately, I shot well in qualification but had no experience in shooting well in the finals.
For 2004, I was totally prepared, I was world No. 1. I put in a lot of effort for four years, I was away from home for those years training. I worked very hard and was very confident. Something went wrong that day, I still wonder why the 10s were not happening. I tried my best. I had no pressure, I was shooting like a routine. I was very sad, it was a very miserable feeling but that was only momentary. I looked up at other shooters who were World and Olympic champions and did not qualify. It was part of sport. The satisfaction was that I tried my level best, it just did not happen. It was not there in my destiny.
Then, 2008 was my bonus period. I did not work that sincerely like how I worked for 2004. Easily I got the quota as I was in good form but preparations were not 100% like I did in Athens. But I enjoyed the process. I focussed more on the (50m) rifle 3 position. I missed the finals. I considered it to be my good performance. I really enjoyed that Olympics.
What are the memories of your Olympics participation?
Getting to see world’s top athletes from close quarters and also the top athletes from India. In 2000, when Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal (bronze in 69kg weight lifting), we were room-mates. Malleswari, Nisha Millet (swimming), myself were room-mates. We really had a very good time. Malleswari returned to the room very late after the celebrations. I congratulated her, felt her Olympics medal. It was very special.
In 2004, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won silver in double trap, we were staying in flats facing each other. I watched him win silver. When we came back to the Games Village, we did not have anything to gift him. We managed to collect all the Games mascots and photos and made a very good greeting card for him with a poem congratulating him. He did not come until late in the night. We stuck that card on his door and he liked it so much.
Again, in 2008, it was very special, being in the hall when Bindra won the gold. We all watched it together till the last shot. We were left wondering ‘kya hoga, kya hoga’ (what would happen) as the Chinese (Zhu Qinan) was the favourite. When Bindra shot 10.8, we were all crying. It was a proud moment to see the National Flag going high and singing the National Anthem.
What does it mean to participate in the Olympics?
Olympics is a lot of fun. Being in the dining hall, getting to meet world’s leading athletes under one roof. I remember, in Sydney, Bindra and I used to go together to the dining hall (we were three Indian shooters, Anwer Sultan, men’s trap event, being the other). At our table, suddenly someone came and sat opposite us. When I looked up, it was Monica Seles (former women’s World No. 1 tennis player from Yugoslavia, now an American citizen). We took photos with her.
Watching other top athletes going crazy over the American basketball players was fun. In 2008, I went with Sania Mirza to watch her match. Rafael Nadal also boarded the same bus and sat behind us. When Usain Bolt won his sprint gold in Beijing, I was sitting right at the finish line.
These are unforgettable experiences. Taking part in the march past wearing traditional Indian dress, watching other countries in their native costumes, right from the tribal costumes of Africa to the formal wear of the British, marching with the Indian contingent and the crowd cheering us, I still get goose bumps. This is an experience. It is not just about your match, performance and medal. It is the whole experience.
This is what the current athletes will miss in Tokyo. It is only a formality that this is happening.