This Sunday, Ankur Mittal was not amongst the array of Indian shooting stars present at a press conference at New Delhi's Karni Singh shooting range ahead of the ISSF World Cup Finals. Mittal was instead to be found blasting orange clay targets into splinters and puffs of pink smoke at the double trap shooting range inside the venue.
The 25-year old's decision is understandable considering the expectations on him.
Touted as one of the favourites to win the event, not least because he is the current World No. 1 in the double trap category -- only the second Indian shotgun shooter ever to top that table after Asian champion Ronjan Sodhi. Heading into the final competition of the international shooting calendar, he has already had an excellent year so far. It began right here at the Karni Singh range itself when he won a silver at the ISSF World Cup in July and then a gold at the Asian Championships. He followed that up with a gold at the Acapulco World Cup and then assured himself of qualification for the World Cup finals by taking a silver at the Shotgun World Championships.
Yet, Mittal acknowledges that his dominance of the sport will be fleeting. Ever since the double trap was removed from the list of Olympic events in July this year, Mittal knows the event's popularity will fade. "After the rule change, no one wants to shoot because it will not be possible to win an Olympic medal in it. It is an expensive sport and there is no sense in continuing if there no benefit to the shooter."
While many double trap shooters have switched to single trap or skeet shooting -- where shooters fire at a single clay bird in contrast to the two in the double trap -- in order to have a future in the sport, Mittal insists he will continue with his old discipline for now. While the event has been scrapped from the Olympics, it remains a medal sport for the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Mittal, who competed at the 2014 Commonwealth and Asian Games but failed to medal in either, now wants to give the two tournaments another shot.
It isn't an ideal scenario. If Mittal focuses on the double trap till September 2018, which is when the Asian Games would conclude, he is likely to not have enough time to master another event with which he could qualify for the 2020 Olympics. It is a scenario that troubles Mittal, who has been shooting double trap since 2010. "It is a disadvantage for me because for the past seven years, I have been shooting double trap only. If I had given seven years to trap, it might have been a different story," he says.
Mittal acknowledges the irony in the situation. At the start of his career in 2008, Mittal was predominantly a trap shooter who eventually shifted to double trap. "My father and brother were both very good double trap shooters. So when I started, my father wanted me to shoot trap. However when I started becoming serious in the sport, I decided to focus on the double trap because I felt I could use the experience of my father and brother," he recalls.
He continued shooting trap at the national level until 2012, even winning the bronze at the junior nationals the same year. However, the fact that he had won gold in the double trap and soon became part of a senior team that featured Ronjan Sodhi and Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore, soon made him pack up the trap gun.
The dusty case in which it had been locked was only re-opened a few months ago. "When the news came that I would have to shoot trap if I wanted to compete in the Olympics, I picked up that gun after three-four years and shot a couple of rounds just to make sure it worked fine."
As of now, Mittal has started competing once again in the event he had once abandoned. "Two months ago, I shot in the Haryana state championships and I won gold. It was a good result because Haryana has some good trap shooters. It gave me the confidence that I could return to trap if I wanted to," he says. He is also keeping track of other double trap shooters choosing the same route. "James Willett (who won double trap gold at the 2017 World Cup in New Delhi and will be returning for the World Cup final) is also shooting trap now. He took part in the Australian trials and he shot 122 targets out of 125, which is a very good score," he says.
Mittal believes it won't be too hard to make the shift. "Because it is a single trap, you have only one shot to fire in each round, you can take your time. In double barrel because you have to hit two targets, you have to be very fast. The entire round takes about 15 minutes at the most. When you shoot trap, you only have one target to focus on and the round takes 25 and even 30 minutes. So I think I was was able to enjoy shooting a lot more."
The 25-year old plans to take his time if he has to switch events. "I will start practicing single trap after the World Cup finals and only shoot it full time after the Asian Games next year," he says. Optimistic about his chances to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Mittal says, "There are a lot of tactics that will carry over. Technique is not very significant in shooting.The main thing you need to shoot well is confidence and mentality. 60 or 70 percent in shooting is how mentally fit you are. If I shoot well in double trap in the next few months, I think I will be able to shift to trap shooting smoothly too."