For 13 years, a World Cup individual medal eluded India's number one in men's archery, Atanu Das. However, it all changed on Sunday in faraway Guatemala City thanks to his archer wife Deepika Kumari, whose inspiring words and bigger sporting feats pushed Das to go the extra mile and show the world that he is second to none.
On the final day of the competition, Das converted his maiden World Cup medal into gold with utmost precision, less than a year after getting married to the former world number one. "She (Deepika) deserves most of the credit for my transformation," Das told PTI from Guatemala City, moments after he defeated Spaniard Daniel Castro in the men's final.
It was a golden treble for India's star archery couple, 'Dee-Das'. Deepika won her first individual gold after three years, and a team gold for the first time since 2014. The real turnaround came for Das who had struggled to get an individual medal at the highest level since making his debut in 2008. "Seeing her perform best at the highest level, sometimes, I would get mentally depressed to cope up.
I would keep working hard and ask myself 'when would my turn come?'," Das said. He had lost the bronze play-off to Kim Woojin in Antalya World Cup in 2016, in his previous best performance. "I would feel bad that I'm not able to match her standards till now. Deepika would get really angry the moment she would see me upset." Trailing 2-4, Das stepped up in the fourth set, shooting 28 and in the decider he was a class apart, drilling three perfect 10s to seal the issue 6-2. He celebrated his first ever World Cup individual gold with a punch in the air.
"She would always say 'mera time pehle aaya hai, tera baad mein ayega (I peaked earlier, your time will also come... You just keep working hard," he said. These inspiring words from Deepika, who had won the Commonwealth Games gold at a young age of 15, would really motivate Das. "I would always wonder how she's able to achieve so much from such a young age. What was her mental state, how did she prepare. All those questions would fill in my mind. "It was about those small, small things which I've learnt from her. So it's Deepika who has played most part in my first gold medal," Das said.
However, it was not love at first sight for the two archers who know each other for about 12 years now. The relationship was yet to blossom even until Rio Olympics 2016, in which both of them participated together. "There were misunderstandings, communication gap between us," Das said. It was only one year after the Rio Olympics, when they became close to each other, in an alien land not very far from Guatemala City in the central American continent. After the Indian recurve team's heavy defeat in the 2017 World Championships in Mexico City, which led to a lot of soul-searching, they got attracted to each other.
"We went shopping together and bonded well. All our misunderstandings, doubts and differences were ironed out," Das recalled dating her in Mexico City. "Nobody proposed as such, it was just a mutual feel and happened during our stint in Mexico City. We started thinking when we will be able to win again and we started planning our shooting." They had initially postponed their marriage to keep the focus firmly on the Tokyo Olympics. But after the Games got postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to alter their plans, tying the knot in a quiet ceremony in Deepika's hometown, Ranchi, on June 30 last year.
When the camp was shut during the lockdown last year, they created a small range in their apartment and would shoot together, just to keep their "mind in sync". "Rest of the time, it was all about mental preparation. We knew, technically we're up there and it was all about handling those crucial pressure moments, where we would falter by some millimetres." Having slipped to nine from being world number one in 2012, Deepika has also showed maturity during the stage one of World Cup, as she overcame two intriguing shoot-offs to seal the team and individual gold.
After shooting a 10 to clinch the team final shoot-off against Mexico, it went down to the wire against USA's eighth seed Mackenzie Brown in the individual final after they were locked five-all. In the shoot-off, both of them shot 9s but Deepika was declared winner as her shot was about one centimetre out of the 10-ring to the right, while Brown's arrow went left and further out in the nine.
"We are mostly focusing on mental preparation these days with yoga, meditation and visualisation programmes, it's helping us a lot," Das said. This is Indian recurve archers' best ever show in a World Cup, even as it came in a depleted field as Asian heavyweights like Korea, China and Chinese Taipei stayed away, citing safety concerns. "In today's day and age, the rankings don't matter.
The competition had the reigning world number one Brady Elison but he got knocked out early," Das pointed out. Incidentally, the best compliment for Das came from none other than the reigning world number one. "He came up to me and said 'well done'... It's really motivating," Das signed off.