The last time Apurvi Chandela competed at an international event in New Delhi, she set a new world record. That was at the World Cup in 2019. This time, in her last competition at the same venue and same tournament – but a different event – Chandela fired a blank.
In the last series of the women’s team bronze medal match on Sunday, Chandela shuffled ever-so-slightly and aimed her air rifle at the target placed 10m in front of her as the timer was reset to 15 seconds. She had uncharacteristically rushed into her previous shot, and so the usually-calm 28-year-old took her time on the final shot.
She kept shuffling, trying to get the perfect sighting of the target. But took too long. When time ran out, she was still shuffling and sighting. Her score read 0 and eventually – but not only because of this – India lost to Poland.
What happened was rare, unexpected and, going by Chandela’s high standards, unlikely to happen again. But it gave a little glimpse into the Jaipur-girl’s mind, where a pen tip-sized target occupies prime space.
One of India’s foremost rifle shooters who dominated the 2019 season, Chandela looks a pale shadow of herself since shooting events restarted in 2021. In the individual 10m air rifle event, where she won a Tokyo Olympics quota, she shot a mediocre score of 622.8 to finish 26th out of the 48 shooters who started in the qualification round.
Her low score came as a surprise, but it was hardly an aberration. In the four selection trials held in January and February at the same range, Chandela shot scores of 625.9, 624.5, 621.3 and 623.2. To put it in perspective, the world record in the qualifying round is 634, set by China’s Ruozhu Zhao at the 2019 New Delhi World Cup – the same where Chandela set the world record for the finals.
“She might not be in the best shape right now but in her head, she is sorted. She knows what the problems are, what the solution is and knows she can get out of this very fast,” national rifle coach Deepali Deshpande says.
The problem, according to Deshpande and Chandela’s personal coach Rakesh Manpat, is the shooter’s kit. When the ‘unlockdown’ began and shooting activities resumed sometime last September, Chandela started to focus on improving her fitness. Inadvertently, she dropped 7 kgs in a short burst – around three months.
“Weight loss was not the goal. Our goal was to get fitter and in that process, weight was lost. But she has gotten fitter in terms of strength, which is very essential,” Manpat says.
The sharp weight reduction meant her shooting kit, which is usually imported from Germany, would no longer be of use. Unlike in other sports, where an athlete can exchange her kit with teammates if something goes wrong, a shooting jacket and trouser are heavily personalised and cut according to the shooter’s size.
But Chandela couldn’t import a new kit because of the pandemic-induced restrictions. Consequently, she had to make do with a locally-sourced kit.
“It does not suit her technique. She has been using a particular type of kit for a very long time so this kind of change is massive and does impact performance,” Deshpande says, adding that the problem with the kit will be solved by April once the new pair arrives.
India’s other quota holder in 10m air rifle, Anjum Moudgil, too faced similar issues. “But thankfully, there wasn’t much change in her body structure so it was easy for her to go back to the old kit,” Deshpande adds.
The kit, however, wasn’t the only issue.
Chandela and Moudgil won Olympic quotas in style at the 2018 World Championships – the biggest tournament in the Olympic cycle apart from the Games themselves. But the National Rifle Association of India’s (NRAI) hesitancy to name the squad – a quota belongs to the country and not athletes – has made the shooters anxious and put pressure on them to keep performing at high levels constantly.
After reaching the final of the 10m air rifle event, which has all but sealed her place in the team, Moudgil admitted she was feeling “a lot of pressure” and how it was off her back once she reached the final.
Chandela has not spoken about her mindset, but her coaches are not concerned about the low scores.
“I was talking to her a couple of days ago and she said, ‘I feel much stronger and positive than 2016’,” Deshpande says, recalling her conversation with the former World No 1.
Manpat adds: “The good thing is, in training and competition her results have been the same. There’s no up and down performance. Mentally she is good and her fighting spirit is there.”
Even when she fired a blank on Sunday, Manpat says it showed her willingness to stick to the shooting process rather than shoot for the sake of it.
“Despite knowing that the equipment is not supporting her, she was still looking to deliver a good shot and not compromise on getting a proper sight of the target,” he adds. “Even under pressure, she was trying to deliver a good shot. That is the biggest positive.”
Three gold medals for India
India won the mixed team events in 10m air rifle and air pistol on Monday. Elavenil Valarivan and Divyansh Panwar finished on top in the 10m air rifle, beating Hungary’s Istvan Peni and Eszter Denes 16-10 in the final. Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary clinched the pistol gold by beating Iran’s Golnoush Sebghatollahi and Javad Foroughi 16-12.
The Skeet team of Mairaj Khan, Angad Bajwa and Gurjoat Khangura won the third gold medal of the day for India while the women’s team comprising Parninaaz Dhaliwal, Karttiki Shaktawat and Ganemat Sekhon won silver in the women’s team skeet event.