They were brought under the scanner, and infinite postmortems were carried out on their decisions and techniques. They are the coaches of the Indian shooting team, who probably had nightmares after expectations got better of their mentees and the dream project of the Indian shooting team returned medalless from the Tokyo Olympics.
Two months down the line after the Olympics, the shooters seem to have found the zig back again. Not to forget, after the stupendous success at the Tokyo Paralympics, a young Indian team has showcased lived upto their world-beating reputations at the ISSF Junior World Championships in Lima, Peru.
The low at Olympics, followed by the highs at the Paralympics and World Championships — if anyone has been successively a part of the entire narrative, she is Suma Shirur, the high-performance coach of Indian rifle shooters. A 2004 Athens Olympic 10m air rifle shooter and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Shirur turned to coaching after her competitive days were over. She is the one who has honed talented shooters like Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar and Paralympic gold medallist Avani Lekhara. As Tomar former exorcised the demons of the Tokyo Paralympics and redeems himself with a gold in the men's 50m rifle 3Position event creating a world record at the Junior World Championships, his guiding star Shirur is as elated as him. In a telephonic interview with The Bridge
from Lima, Shirur shared her takeaways from Tokyo and now the Junior World Championships.
"The experience of coaching the team in the last three outings has been quite different and quite interesting. It was a great and fulfilling experience for me in terms of learning, and I think it has enhanced my understanding of the various aspects of the sport. So I think I am a more enriched coach now after the three tournaments," says Shirur.
Indian shooters redeemed themselves at the Paralympics after some sensational performances. Avani Lekhara earned India's first Paralympic shooting medal in the women's 10m air rifle standing SH1 category. The 19-year-old also made history by being the first Indian woman to win a Paralympic gold medal. She followed up her gold with a bronze in the 50m rifle 3 position SH1 event, making her the first Indian woman to win two Paralympic medals and the second Indian overall to win multiple medals in the same edition of the Games.
Manish Narwal won gold in the P4 – Mixed 50m Pistol SH1 final. He set a Paralympic record by scoring 218.2 points to win the gold medal. Singhraj Adhana, a 39-year-old polio survivor who was competing in his first Olympics, won the silver and bronze medals. While Shirur was heartbroken after the Olympics, she had to pick herself up from the disappointment to guide Lekhara into the Paralympics.
"The Tokyo Olympics was quite disappointing. I was mainly responsible for the performance of Aishwary particularly. One takeaway from the Olympics was that we were very close and yet very far from what we wanted to achieve. It shook all of us and took quite some time to come back to the normalcy of our minds. I had to pick myself up again for the next challenge at the Paralympics. I have been working for Avani for the last couple of years. I was a bit scattered after coming back from the Olympics; then I went on a one-day trip with my husband. Spending time with my family was kind of a recharge for me, with which I headed for the Paralympics the next time. There I got some more clarity and how do I plan for my next challenge. It was all the same for the shooters and as well as the coaches.
"The Paralympics was quite a humbling experience. Seeing the athletes accepting each other with their disabilities and still enjoying their hearts out at the Games stoked a warm feeling inside my heart. It was unique. Being with Avani and helping her winning medals was therapeutic. This is what I needed, this is what Avani needed. I didn't want to leave Tokyo with a negative feeling. I got to feel the best as well as the worst in Tokyo. It was not because of the medals I am saying this. The feeling that evoked inside me was just to being there with each other." says Shirur.
"While the Olympics and Paralympics are quadrennial events, Shirur finds her passion project in training the junior rifle shooters as the chief coach of the Indian junior shooting team where she has honed a vast pool of talent since 2018. Apart from Aishwary, she has taken the likes of Elavenil Valarivan, Divyansh Singh Panwar under her wings. This time also, India has fared at the top spot of the Junior World Championships winning overall six medals in rifle shooting.
"This is something I have been enjoying. There are young kids and newcomers, many of whom are first-timers who are leaving their parents and going to participate in tournaments abroad. So I feel a greater responsibility as they are the future of India. They come from different backgrounds, having different techniques. It is an honour to lay the right foundation for them and honing them when they step into the world of competitive shooting. The first experience of an international competition lays the foundation for future tournaments, and this is where I guide them. This is an important responsibility that I am completely immersed in," says Shirur.
Suma Shirur with Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar at the Junior World Championships 2021
20-year-old Aishwary, who is playing his last tournament as a part of the junior team, got past his disappointment from Tokyo and paved his way to the future by becoming junior world champion on Monday. Tomar won gold in the men's 50m rifle 3Position event and in the process created a world record also equalling another at the ISSF Junior World Championships in Lima, Peru. In the qualifying round, the Madhya Pradesh shooter scored 1,185 to equal the qualifying junior world record and bettered the national record of 1,180 registered by Sanjeev Rajput in 2019.
When asked about the shooter's transformation, Shirur said, "Aishwary was very disappointed after he came back from the Tokyo Olympics. He was going there as one of the best shooters in the world and not being able to deliver — somehow, the expectations got the better off him. And coming from there, to cope with the disappointment needs a bit of experience. He tried his best; however, his confidence was shaken after coming back from Tokyo. I wanted him to take a break, he went to meet his family, keeping shooting aside for a few days, and then I think he has been able to come back stronger. I had a long talk with him and gave him a clear picture.
"Those who won medals in his event in Tokyo have been here for the last two Olympic cycles. The gold medal winner has been in the 1,180 leagues for two years. Aishwarya came into this league only in March 2021. He went to Tokyo with the experience of shooting 1,180 just for five months. And I think, there the pressure got to him. Getting into the Olympics was difficult for him initially, but eventually, he made it through the last qualification event. To simply put it out, to be the best in the Olympics, you need a bit more experience. I was very proud that he made it to the Olympics in a short period of time. He just needed to keep the belief."
Besides Aishwary, Ramita won a bronze medal in 10m Air Rifle women's event; Rudrankksh Patel won silver in 10m Air Rifle men's event; Atmika Gupta and Rajpreet Singh won silver in 10m Air Rifle Mixed Team event; Srikanth Dhanush, Rajpreet, Paarth Makhija won gold in Air Rifle Team Men event. Lastly, Nisha Kanwar, Zeena Khitta, Atmika Gupta won silver in Air Rifle Team Women event. "I am happy that they have brought out their best. Ramita has never shot a 629 before this. My job is to bring out the best in them, and if their best churns out a medal, then I am happy.
It doesn't matter how you do in your previous competition, but you have to keep proving yourself. It is a bit refreshing to get out of that awful feeling after the Olympics. For all of us, it was important to get back in track once again after Olympics. We look forward to being the best again."
Shirur, who is set to land in India on October 13, will again be having her roster occupied when she joins Aishwary at the President's Cup in November.