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Young gun Shapath shoots against all odds

ESPN

Until two years ago, the rooftop of his house doubled up as shooting range and a dummy shotgun, put together by a local carpenter, was his weapon of choice. Last year, at 14, Shapath Bharadwaj became the youngest shotgun shooter to make the Indian senior team and marked his arrival on the international stage by entering the ISSF World Cup finals in May this year, again the youngest-ever to do so.

"I haven't run into a talent like Shapath in my entire career," former world No. 1 double trap shooter Ronjan Singh Sodhi tells ESPN. "He will soon be unstoppable."

Shapath has gone from being crowned junior state double trap champion in August 2014, within a year of taking to the sport, to qualifying for the senior trials with record 136/150 scores in under 28 months, a gargantuan leap.

He ended up finishing second in the senior trials in December last year, becoming the first junior to make the senior team at the age of 14. Sights set on bunch of upcoming events - junior World Cup, senior World Championship and Asian shotgun championship this year, Shapath straddles his junior hopes and senior ambitions with a measure of ease.

Lacking the means to import a shotgun (costing around Rs. 5 lakh), his father S Raju requested a carpenter in his neighborhood in Meerut to fashion a dummy. It was also the most inexpensive way to practice - dry firing, or firing without live ammunition. "It took me almost a month to convince the carpenter," says Raju. "He was scared that someone might report to cops that he's making guns."

An important part of Shapath's tournament preparation, until lately, was coaxing fellow shooters to loan him a gun. Not always was he met with luck. One such instance was the Indian Shotgun Open, jointly organized by Sodhi and fellow trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu in 2014, where he turned up to compete without a weapon after a shooter who had promised a loan went back on his word. Sodhi then stepped in with help. Impressed by Shapath's talent, Sodhi not only made arrangements for his equipment but also requested former trap shooter Yogindra Pal Singh to coach him free of cost.

"Lacking the means to import a shotgun (costing around Rs 5 lakhs), Shapath's father S Raju requested a carpenter in his neighborhood in Meerut to fashion a dummy. It was also the most inexpensive way to practice - dry firing, or firing without live ammunition."

"I was amazed by what I saw," says Sodhi, "Usually 12 or 13 year-olds are all over the place but Shapath was remarkably focused and driven. Despite training alone and with limited resources, he was really good."

Captivated by guns from an early age, Shapath skimmed through toy shop racks and tagged alongside his older brother Shrey, who briefly practiced trap shooting, to the now-dysfunct Pelhara shooting range in Meerut. "There's something about guns that caught my attention," says Shapath, "always, everywhere."

Unsuspecting vindication came his way on his very first visit to the range as a nine-year old. "The first shot he fired hit the target," says Raju, "We realized that he's a special talent and needs to be nurtured even if means digging into all our savings." In June 2015, Shapath got his own Kreighoff double trap gun after his father managed to loan some money for its import.

He soon repaid the faith in earnest.

At the World Cup in Larnaka, Cyprus in May this year, Shapath qualified for his maiden final on a shoot-off in fourth position out of the top six, but missed out on a medal after shooting 26 out of the first round of 30 targets for a sixth-place finish. He was up against some of the best shooters, and even outdid former World Cup gold medalist Davide Gaspirini of Italy in the shoot-off to enter the final.

However, an unexpected welcome awaited the 15-year old on his return to India after the historic feat. His gun was taken away by Customs officials at the IGI airport, a fate that befell the rest of the shooting contingent as well, who were then left stranded at the airport for 13 hours with authorities refusing to clear their equipment. It was the fallout of an illegal guns and poaching racket being busted following a raid at a Meerut-based retired colonels' residence and the recovery of a large number of arms and his son Prashant Bishnoi, a national-level shooter, going into hiding.

Seven days and numerous documentations later, Shapath was returned his gun, but by then, he had already lost a week's practice and a reason for celebration. "Our neighbors were waiting to congratulate him for making the final so we had planned a surprise welcome for him. But we couldn't really carry out any of our plans since we were left shuttling back and forth between Meerut and New Delhi for documents and approval for the next few days," Raju adds.

"Mindful of his family's limited finances, Shapath uses an economy of shots in practice. He's had two only imports of cartridges (15,000 cartridges in each batch) over the past two and half years and still has close to 8000 cartridges remaining."

A student of class 10 at St Mary's Academy in Meerut, Shapath travels 200 kms for practice at the Karni Singh shooting range in Tughlaqabad. He uses the six hours of commute in the family's Nano car to catch up on studies and complete his homework. "We usually pick him up from school an hour before time and he has his lunch and changes out of his school uniform in the car itself. On our way back from practice my wife helps him with homework so that he's ready for next day's school," says Raju.

With training in the sport requiring long hours of intense focus, his attention span and retentive ability in academics has improved. "Earlier it was pretty hard to travel such long hours," Shapath, whose rather unusual name, which means oath in Hindi, was picked out by his older brother, says. "But it's been a few years now and I don't care if I have to travel 100 kms or 300kms to shoot anymore."

There's a reason why Shapath fell in love with trap shooting.

As opposed to most other shooting disciplines, shotgun events are held at outdoor ranges, exposing it to the vagaries of wind and weather conditions. Also, targets in this case are moving, unlike the stationary ones used for the rest of the shooting disciplines. In double trap, shooters stationed 16 yards behind the house which releases the targets, attempt to hit a series of bright orange clay disks, measuring 110mm in diameter and 25mm in height, thrown into the air simultaneously at a high speed away from them.

"Actually I find the rest of the shooting events pretty boring," Shapath says. "The only thing you see is the screen and there's nothing really that draws your interest. But trap shooting is something you can really indulge in. You can see the target and also your shot breaking or missing it. That's what I like the most."

Among his many facets, mentor Sodhi finds Shapath's controlled aggression remarkable. "In a sport like shooting, which is all about the mind, you can't afford to lose it. It is also the reason why most shooters peak in their late 20s or early 30s, it's when you're more settled in your head. Controlling your aggression is the most difficult thing to do, particularly for a boy of his age. When he misses a target, his facial expressions change and you can see he's controlling his emotions. And he does it remarkably well."

Mindful of his family's limited finances, Shapath uses an economy of shots in practice. He has had two only imports of cartridges (15,000 cartridges in each batch) over the past two and half years and still has close to 8000 cartridges remaining. A batch of 15,000 cartridges roughly cost 4500 euros (over Rs 3 lakhs). "While most of the others shoot up to 10 rounds in practice, he's never exceeded four rounds," adds his father.

Despite that, he's done wonders.

"With double trap likely to be scrapped from the 2020 Olympic program, Shapath plans to switch to the trap event -- a future he's already reconciled with. He has, in fact, already begun training in the new event."

Midway through last year, CREDAI, the apex body of private real estate developers, stepped in to offer Shapath sponsorship, with a monthly assistance of Rs. 50,000. While it's some relief for his family, it's not enough to cover most of the shooter's expenditure - training, fitness, nutrition, equipment, travel and equipment - in an expensive sport like shooting.

A plea for support to Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC) continues to remain unanswered even after a year and more than a clutch of impressive results. "Despite 100 odd phone calls, all we were offered were hollow assurances," says Raju, "It is in the making of a future champion that government and corporate entities need to invest, not after they've won Olympic medals. I'm still struggling to repay the loan for his first gun which we bought two years ago."

Apart from shooting, Shapath is also a good swimmer -- which attributes to his stocky build -- and loves to play football and even lends his mother a hand in the kitchen, whenever he finds time. As a Mother's Day surprise this year, in fact, he rustled up a bowl of Maggi for her.

Only a year ago, his mother feared he'd gone missing. "Shapath locked himself up in his room after I'd reprimanded him," recalls his father. "We knocked later to find it unlocked, but he wasn't in there."

Following a tearful two-hour hunt, they finally found him in an unexpected spot. Sitting cross-legged under his study table, oblivious to the exasperation that surrounded him, Shapath was calmly cleaning his gun stock. "It's what I do when I'm angry, sad or hurt," Shapath says, "I don't know why or how but it just relaxes me the most, even just looking at my gun. It's my best friend."

"I haven't run into a talent like Shapath in my entire career. He will soon be unstoppable."

Ronjan Singh Sodhi, former world No 1 double trap shooter

With double trap likely to be scrapped from the 2020 Olympic program, Shapath plans to switch to the trap event -- a future he has already reconciled with. Apart from a change in equipment, it wouldn't necessitate wholesale changes in technique. He has in fact already begun training in the new event. "Only time will tell how well the new discipline will work for me," he says.

The impending switch, though, has added another worry to his father's mind: Affording a second gun.