Manu Bhaker is only 16 years old but is already being heralded as amongst the most promising prospects in the sport in a long time. There's good reason for that. Last month, she became the youngest ever Indian to win a gold medal at the World Cup. And on Sunday, she added a gold medal from the Commonwealth Games to an already overflowing resume.
It wasn't just the fact that she was the youngest Indian to win the most recent medal but the sheer dominance with which she went about it -- the silver medallist finished nearly seven points behind her -- that is causing people to take notice. Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, who followed the competition from Italy, is one of them. "Manu Bhaker is undoubtedly a very talented shooter and she is in very good form at the moment," he says. "When you are in that frame of mind, your mind is clear and there is no hesitation in the execution of your shots. And because of that you are able to compartmentalize all the distractions of shooting in a big event."
While Manu might be inexperienced at this level (she first held a pistol less than two years ago), Bindra reckons her red-hot form more than suffices. It might even help that she is as young as she is, says Jaspal Rana, currently the coach of the junior team and himself a prodigy who won a World Cup gold medal at 18. "When you are this young you really don't have as many expectations on you and you play without pressure," he had told ESPN before the team's departure to Gold Coast.
But while Manu seems nearly invincible at the moment, both Bindra and Rana say it is best not to get carried away. "It will get tougher with time," says Bindra, who isn't any stranger to early career success, having participated at the Olympics as an 18-year-old and winning a World Cup medal a year later. "There will be both good and bad times that you have to deal with. There will be a time when you are shooting well and you will also face a time when you won't. That is just the cycle any shooter will experience."
Indian shooting has seen this before. Four years ago, at the Glasgow Games, it was another 16-year-old -- Malaika Goel -- who won a silver in 10m pistol. She too had been crowned the next star of Indian shooting. But Goel has, for now, struggled to live up to the promise that medal indicated. While she remains a competitive shooter, she has not represented the country since the junior Asian championships in 2016.
"It will get tougher with time. There will be both good and bad times that you have to deal with. There will be a time when you are shooting well and you will also face a time when you won't. That is just the cycle any shooter will experience." Abhinav Bindra
It would be unfair to burden young Manu with the same expectations. "You have to be patient with young shooters," says Rana. "Just because you win one big event doesn't mean you would be successful in every event you participate in. I won the World Cup gold in 1994, but there were years I haven't done well too."
After Manu secured gold, Bindra had tweeted congratulations to her as well as to Rana for "superbly managing her". Indeed, Rana says that was what his task was. "You don't need to coach them too much," he says. "They are already capable of winning medals at the big stage. Your job is to keep them grounded. In India we have the habit of raising sportspersons up very quickly and then bringing them down the moment things go against them."
There is little doubt that young shooters like Bhaker will find themselves confronting obstacles and ultimately it will be a test that only the shooter themselves must face. "As a shooter it is all about continuing to overcome those challenges," says Bindra. "You simply have to persist."