For 44-year old Suma Shirur, Shooting was something that happened quite by accident, she says. She is the Joint World Record holder in the 10m Air Rifle (Women) category- after she scored maximum points in the qualification round at the 2004 Asian Shooting Championships. Her prowess and contribution to Indian shooting did not stay limited to her competitive days- in 2018, she was appointed the High-Performance coach for the Junior Rifle team which puts her bang at the epicentre of the change one sees in modern Indian shooting and the consistent participation of youngsters at the senior level.
This shooting World Cup is poised to be no different. Today was the first official day of the ISSF Shooting World Cup scheduled to be held in the country’s capital. By a mile, this would be one of the biggest events India is set to host this year as the World Cup offers quota places for Olympic hopefuls. The nation’s shooting team has embraced the challenge openly to field a strong team in all the categories on offer even as the best in the world have descended into the city to put up a stiff challenge.
On Elavenil and Divyansh- the young guns in the Rifle events
In the midst of all this, it would be prudent to remember India has already bagged the two shooting quota places up on offer for 10m Air Rifle (Women) courtesy Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil who are both in the current senior team. The third candidate for this event is 19-year old Elavenil Valarivan who will be making her senior World Cup debut. Similarly, the Men’s 10m Air Rifle team sees the addition of 17-year old Divyansh Singh Panwar alongside the more seasoned Deepak Kumar and Ravi Kumar. Suma is someone who has worked with both shooters very closely.
“Divyansh really came to his own potential over the last year and it has been great observing him through that,” Shirur tells The Bridge. “He really has taken most of the people by surprise, to be honest.”
The teen’s most recent achievement saw him bag silver at the 11th Asian Shooting Championship in November where his performance saw him go below 10 (9.8) only once in the 24-shot final. He had missed the Gold very closely.
Explaining a little more about what sets Panwar apart from his peers, Shirur adds, “If you look at him, his whole position and stance are very unique and special. Last year, when I first saw him, it was a big challenge for me when it came to grooming him for international shooting. It took a lot of work retaining his natural instinct and position and working with his existing skills to reach this stage.”
“All I did was tweak his technique a little bit, worked on making his base stronger, little adjustments in his rifle- it’s all his credit that he caught up,” she adds. “I am really very happy with the way the boy has come up.”
“As a child, he is extremely playful in nature,” Shirur continues. “It’s nature, unlike a typical rifle shooter. What is interesting about him is that he somehow transforms into a completely different person once in the lane. He is 100% focused, sharp, motivated and very driven- basically, the complete opposite of what he is like as a person.”
So, how would she characterise Elavenil Valarivan having worked with her as well in Junior National Camps? According to Shirur, Elavenil was someone who was completely different.
“Elavenil was a finished product when she came to the national camp,” Shirur recalls. “After she got into the squad, all we did was help her peak.”
“If you look at her scores last year, she achieved a personal best. Additionally, crossing a score of 630 is something she started doing only last year onwards.”
“More than anything, it has been interesting to watch her shoot phenomenally well throughout last year.” And as an afterthought, Shirur adds, “She can easily be grouped as one of the strongest shooters in the squad.”
“Her performance is definitely going to be something to look forward to.”
No dearth of talent in among India’s Junior Rifle shooters
And Shirur’s coaching eye is definitely not limited to these shooters alone. According to her, the entire Junior Rifle team has some phenomenal talents who are all set to contribute to a very interesting landscape in the coming years once they know their rightful potential.
“The Junior Rifle team, last year, really emerged as a team of stars,” says Shirur with a hint of pride. “Most competitions we entered, we came back with a Gold- not just that, even world records were consistently broken. So, there is really no dearth of talent.”
“There’s Mehuli Ghosh among the girls- a really strong shooter. Then there is Shreya Agarwal and among the boys, there’s the Junior National Champion Hriday Hazarika and the Youth Olympics silver medalist Shahu Mane– each unique and brilliant in their own way.”
“These are just the ones who have already made their mark and there are so many more yet on their way. It really has been a collective team development,” the veteran shooter observes. “Watch out for even newer names at the upcoming Asian Airgun Championships,” she foretells. “Exciting things are surely on the horizon for Indian shooting.”
However, working with junior shooters is never an easy task. At this age, one can effectively say that whatever they learn during these formative years essentially sets the base for them as international shooters in the future. Additionally, each of them brings their own sets of quirks and challenges which must be accommodated while teaching them to better their skills- a fact Suma already addressed when she spoke of Divyansh Panwar’s transformation. However, the task becomes all the more challenging when you consider the sheer number of upcoming shooting talents in the country.
“Inexperience and a variety of foreign coaches in their initial years is a part and package of all junior shooters,” says Shirur. “The biggest challenge for me is to always gain their confidence enough for them to imbibe whatever it is I am teaching them. It is important to make them believe that they have the talent to compete internationally at the biggest stages.”
The evolution of shooting
Dealing with youngsters today definitely has evolved given that the sport of shooting itself has seen a massive transformation- a fact that Suma recognizes fully.
“A change is way scores are calculated has effectively changed our entire approach to the game. We have moved from the non-decimal system to the decimal and even in finals, shooters start from a zero. What that does is once again put all the shooters on an even playing field- it gives everyone a chance and is, in a sense, making the entire event a lot more competitive than what we have been used to,” she says.
“The equipment has come a long way- Rifles are now a lot more sophisticated. When I shot a world record or participated at the Olympics, I shot with a wooden stock rifle. They do not have the option to adjust settings to best suit the shooter carrying it- these days, you can really fine-tune every single rifle to your body and style.”
“Even in terms of support and encouragement, we have come a long way,” she adds. “When I started, nobody knew much about shooting being a competitive sport. I myself started out quite accidentally- to be honest. I am talking about a time when shooting was pretty much associated with the Army and nothing beyond that.”
“We started very late- I was nearly 18. Today, the youngsters start out as early as 10,” she adds. “But probably the biggest difference is that, when we were at our peak, we did not have anyone before us who had performed at a great level. Scores of 380 and beyond on 400 were benchmarks we set- most breakthrough performances stood out because you could probably call us pioneers of the sport, in a sense.”
“For the kids, their benchmark is a lot higher even while they start out, They approach the game with a different mindset and especially when competing in the senior circuit against veteran Olympic or World medalists- that’s when they are really tested. It really has been a revolutionary change for the country.”
Where there is a scope of improvement
She further adds that the current state of Indian shooting has left her quite satisfied for the time being but, like everything, there still is scope for improvement. “Slowly, everything is falling into place but there is always room for professionalism in the Indian system,” she observes.
“One thing we now must look towards working on is hiring more experts and seeking more professional help to improve the game- that is one department where a lot of work remains.”
“When it comes to sports sciences, there is not much ready access to it. India as a country is still at quite a nascent stage when it comes to properly using science to improve individual and overall performances. I’ll be very happy with more technological and professional inputs in the game. Then we can take the sport to a whole other level.”
In 2006, Shirur founded the Lakshya Shooting Academy to enhance younger talents and, for her part, has made sure that her academy is founded on the philosophy of using science to achieve better results.
“The first time I went to Germany for my coaching, I learnt more in 10 days than I had in the last 10 months,” she recalls. “The key is that whatever time one spends shooting, it should be with the right technique, knowledge and attitude. Otherwise, what is the use?”
“At Lakshya, we have slowly been able to use expertise to achieve exactly that,” she says. “In addition to data analytics being used to study performances, there are things like using a power plate where you can really study your position, studying body movement via electrodes which helps us understand which part of the body is responsible for a good or bad shot.”
“This helps is personalising and structuralising your training,” she adds. “Right now, at the national level, we work on feedback from the shooters but with sports sciences, what you’re relying on is hard data. And, at the end of the day, that is more helpful.”
On that note, we take our leave with our interest piqued regarding the amazing days ahead for Indian shooting in general and the current World Cup in particular.