Baby's day out: PUB-G addict Shardul Vihan turns Asian Games medallist
Fifteen-year-old Shardul Vihan endured a potentially sleepless night ahead of his Asian Games debut. It wasn't due to any overbearing fear of the competition, his first at the senior international level.
"They were playing video games, some shooting game. Shouting and screaming," says Mansher Singh, the shotgun team manager, with the exasperation of a long-suffering older roommate. "Of course I had to remind him that he had an Asian Games competition the next day."
It meant Mansher was forced to enforce his squad's lights-out policy at 10:30PM on Wednesday night on both Vihan and fellow teen Lakshay Sheoran.
Eventually, it would take not a mention of the next day's responsibilities, but a reminder that Vihan's favourite food - baked beans - would run out at the village cafeteria if he didn't get up early enough, that motivated him to switch off the console.
As it turns out, Vihan suffered little ill-effects from his love of the online multiplayer battle royale, Player Unknown's Battlegrounds (PUB-G). On Thursday morning, he became the youngest Indian shooter to lift a medal at this year's Asian Games, winning silver in the men's double trap competition - the event made famous by Rajyavardhan Rathore, who won an Olympic silver in it in 2004.
At the shooting range, among compatriots more than double his age, Vihan displayed an instant ease. He was blowing up clay discs for an Asiad medal but he may as well still have been riddling virtual enemies on a laptop screen. He held the lead for the first 36 (out of a total of 80) shots and ran eventual winner Shin Hyunwoo of Korea close right until the end. He fell short by a single shot - 74 to 73 - to 34-year-old Hyunwoo. Forty-two-year-old Hamad Al Marri of Qatar finished third.
Vihan's youth was undeniable, not just due to the fact that he still can't grow even the faintest of wisps on his chin. On more than one occasion, the range referee had to tap him on the shoulder to remind him not to rush between stations. Yet, there was no mistaking the practiced method with which he hunted down his targets.
While other shooters drew their guns like dueling cowboys, Vihan was deliberate. As he moved from one firing position to another, he lined up the horizon with a shell casing in order to know where he might position his gun to best track the trajectory of the flying birds.
"All shooters know it but I do it with every shot," he said later. He thought out each motion of his stroke. He even has a shorthand much like a high school student remembering an algebra formula.
"It's in my head. It's like this. Aaa (the call for the birds to be released)... pum...pum."
If the motions are rehearsed immaculately, Vihan also has the advantage of being a natural. His coach, the former Olympian trap shooter Anwar Sultan, certainly thinks so. Sultan jokes that it's because the two of them are from Shamli in Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat district.
"Waha ka paani piya hai to use accha shooter banna hi tha (If you hail from there, shooting comes naturally to you)," jokes Sultan, who had travelled from India to watch his ward compete.
It's not just the water though. Sultan recalls the first time he met Vihan, when the boy was just 13. "He has excellent hand-eye coordination and reactions. I'm sure if he was in any other sport he would have been just as good."
Indeed, Vihan won his first Junior national in 2016 and then won both the senior and junior titles the following year. He has had international success too, winning the Junior World cup in Suhl earlier this year.
The silver medal, though, is seen as the huge accomplishment it is by everyone other than himself.
"I missed out on gold by just one point," he complains to Shreyasi Singh. She pinches the puppy fat in his cheeks and replies "Why do you worry, you just won a medal."
There is no doubt he is pampered by the rest of the squad.
"He's the baby of the group. Everyone looks after him. If he's having a headache, we will fuss over him. If he's feeling drowsy, I'll go and get him a coffee," says trap shooter Shreyasi. She emphasises that the brew will be a weak one. "You can't get him anything strong because he's still so young."
Like the other teenagers in the Indian shooting contingent, coaches reckon Vihan has some of the same advantages of youthful exuberance.
"He's an aggressive shooter with the advantage of having no expectations on him," says Mansher. Vihan knows as much too.
"I didn't have any pressure before the finals. Coach told me that baaki sab mere se bade the toh unki fattegi mere se (everybody else is older, so they'll be wary of me)," he says.
But there are other challenges he faces. The fact that he is growing means the length of his weapon keeps changing.
"At the last camp he was unhappy because his scores were low. But I figured out that was because his gun stock (the wooden part placed on the shooter's shoulder) was too long. It had fit him perfectly before but because he had grown, it didn't anymore. We had to shave it by a couple of inches so that it was comfortable to hold once again," says Mansher.
The entirety of the gun will change now. With double trap no longer featuring in the Olympics, Vihan will have to change his discipline, too. He will in effect have to learn to use an entirely new tool - the single trap shotgun. He plans on training in a couple of weeks' time.
But not yet. There are celebrations to be had. A party has been planned.
"I can have have soft drinks," he says happily. At least for today he wont have to worry about his bed time. And that of course means he can play a few more rounds of PUB-G.