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Heena and Jitu strike up golden partnership

Jitu Rai and Heena Sidhu shot 483.4 in the final to win the gold. PTI

Heena Sidhu and Jitu Rai have discovered fresh meaning in partnership. The pair won gold in the 10m air pistol mixed-team event at the World Cup finals in New Delhi, Jitu's first ever at a World Cup.

Unlike in individual events, where everything and everyone around a shooter dissolves into the background, the team event warrants trust, understanding and communication with a living, breathing partner.

"It's crucial to have good rhythm and coordination. One of us just can't decide to shoot faster or slower. We have to think and function like a single unit. That was the basic training Jitu and I did, understanding each other's rhythm and doing our homework to know how much time the other person needs to comfortably complete a shot," she said.

"Also, Jitu wanted to shoot second so we tried it out during training and carried it forward into this World Cup. Next time we might do it the other way round."

Seven months ago, Jitu Rai, India's brightest prospect in the free pistol event, was understandably upset. His event had been scrapped from the 2020 Olympic program to make way for mixed-gender team events.

"It's an incredible feeling," Heena told ESPN. "This is my second World Cup gold medal (her first came in 2013 in the women's air pistol event) and both of us are really happy with what we've achieved. It's also Jitu's first gold so he's very excited."

The Heena-Jitu combo had won gold medals twice in the mixed-team events - at the World Cups in New Delhi and Gabala in February and June this year, respectively. Both, however, were test events for the newly-introduced categories so the medals weren't counted.

Three mixed-gender team events - 10m air pistol, 10m air rifle and trap - were introduced in place of the scrapped free pistol, 50m rifle prone and double trap, following a unanimous ISSF administrative council ratification in a bid to push for gender equality at the Olympics.

The five-team field final narrowed to a India-France face-off with the Indian pair shooting 483.4 to win the title. A score of 481.1 could only fetch France silver. Earlier in the qualification, Heena had posted a total of 382 (94, 96, 95, 9) while Jitu shot 97, 96, 95, 97 over four series for a marginally higher 385.

"I didn't start too well but that didn't worry us too much. There's also the pressure of competing before the home crowd. In the final, particularly in the third series, we had some good shots and that got us ahead," she said.

The rifle and pistol mixed-team events has the top five teams moving from the qualification to the finals where team members alternate firing shots, with each shooting three 5-shot series and nine single shots that lasts till both have fired 24 shots. The lowest ranking teams are eliminated during the single shots until the gold and silver medal-winning teams are decided.

"During training for instance, Jitu was lifting his arm early so that was disturbing my focus. We worked on that. Also when you practice together you pick up wordless signals and can tell what the other person is thinking.

"What makes this event engaging is that there is some sort of strategy involved and also more spectator-friendly. I really like it."

The consistent performances of the duo - three gold medals in as many World Cups - since the introduction of the event also hints at a strong medal prospect in the years to come.

"Definitely it's something that can fetch us more medals in the future. A lot of countries have one dominant or exceptional shooter but few have two above average shooters who can form a team. India has a strong team and that gives us a good chance at a medal."

When they're not hitting the board together, Jitu speaks little and smiles a lot.

"He's a very shy guy so training aside, we barely interact. Once the shooting is wrapped up, he retreats into his own world."