Nationals showstopper Mehuli Ghosh chasing bigger dreams now

Mehuli Ghosh has also set her sights on winning a 2020 Olympic quota at the World Championships in Changwon, South Korea later this year. Photo courtesy of Joydeep Karmakar

A few days ago in training, Mehuli Ghosh, all of 17, was in a particularly chatty mood. The teen was giving her leaden arms a break, her rifle some quiet time and was in no seeming hurry to get back to blinker-focus mode. Coach Joydeep Karmakar, watching from a distance, stepped in and cut through the banter with a cryptic query on what the time was in Beijing then. Understandably puzzled, Mehuli, a 10m air rifle shooter, shrugged and waited for an explanation. "I was just thinking of all the Chinese shooters firing away in practice right now," Karmakar said wryly. Mehuli stiffened, picked up her rifle and didn't set it down for the rest of the session.

"Often, that's all it takes," Karmakar tells ESPN. "The right trigger."

It's certainly not the easiest task to coach a teen for dizzying, Olympic-level success, as Karmakar, a formerly accomplished shooter himself, will tell you. He had finished fourth in the 50m rifle prone event at the 2012 London Games, missing a bronze medal by a hair's breadth.

For a sport that hinges largely on mental fortitude, the mind's preparedness, Karmakar says, can make or break a shooter's chance. "Since I started coaching her little over two years ago, the focus has been on preparing her mind, getting it in the right zone," he says. "Technique, I feel, most shooters at a certain level will be evenly footed on. What will set them apart in the competition lane is the mind."

Mehuli will agree.

Last December, she finished with an impressive eight-medal haul in the 5,000-odd competition field of the Nationals. This, just after she'd won a quota place for the Youth Olympic Games with a gold at the Asian Championships in Wako City, Japan. At the start of this year, Mehuli, who is supported by the non-profit Olympic Gold Quest, was handed a fresh goal: Commonwealth Games. "I was not really surprised to find my name in the squad since I had a chance," says Mehuli. "I wouldn't have been too disappointed if I wasn't named either. You can say I was prepared for both scenarios." In a sport that celebrates stillness, you can hardly baulk at the teenaged shooter's poise.

Growing up in the town of Baidyabati in West Bengal, Mehuli took to guns early. Every time denim-clad slickers Jai and Veeru whipped out their pistols to shoot down bandits in the Bollywood classic 'Sholay' or the famed trio of investigators solved crimes with little ado in the TV series 'CID', Mehuli watched transfixed. The closest she got to mimicking their styles was by popping colourful balloons with an air gun at fairs.

"I can say with absolute certainty that I haven't in my close to three decades in the sport run into a talent like her [Mehuli]. What sets her apart is that she's extremely sharp in perception and quick in interpretation. Also, she knows how to fight back from a really bad position."

Joydeep Karmakar, coach of Mehuli Ghosh

Every athlete has that one, singular, definitive point which gets them limbering up on a dream to chase a medal, to win, to climb a podium and be the greatest they can possibly be. For Mehuli, it was watching a 25-year-old Abhinav Bindra stand on the Olympic podium in 2008, clutching a gleaming gold medal. "That day I knew I wanted to be a shooter," she says. "More than anything else, it was the belief that an Indian too can achieve what we thought was impossible until then. It made me dream."

It was no surprise then that she too, emulating Bindra, picked air rifle as her competitive category. She joined a neighbourhood rifle club after coaxing her parents for a year, but her life was to hit an unexpected bend and hurl her into the pits of despair. During a practice session, her misfired shot hit and wounded an employee at the club. She was suddenly living the worst nightmare of every shooter. And she was just 14.

In August 2015, her mother reached out to Karmakar for help. Mehuli was a quiet, depressed teen, undergoing psychological counselling when he first met her at his academy in Kolkata. "I sensed that shooting is probably the last thing she needed then," says Karmakar, who coaches Mehuli without charge. "She was traumatized and everybody around had lost hope in her and suggested that she was not meant for the sport. Worse still, she had begun to believe it. So I had to start with slowly restoring her confidence, getting her to open up and trust me. Then once she got there, the trick was to make her dream again."

By the end of the year, he had begun with proper rifle sessions and started aggressively pushing her to deliver. "Mehuli was shooting excellent scores in practice and I knew she would be the showstopper at the next nationals," he says.

He was on the money.

"I can say with absolute certainty that I haven't in my close to three decades in the sport run into a talent like her," says Karmakar. "What sets her apart is that she's extremely sharp in perception and quick in interpretation. Also, she knows how to fight back from a really bad position."

Travelling to and from Karmakar's academy in New Town, Kolkata takes up four hours of Mehuli's day and she reaches home only around midnight. She doesn't seem to mind it though. "The shooter I am today is because of my coach," she says. "With him guiding me, I can only grow." Now, following her recent performances, the school that houses the academy has offered to provide her accommodation.

A corollary to early success, excessive ambition and continual training in young athletes is the prospect of a burnout, and Karmakar is frank in admitting of its possibility. "I've seen dozens of promising female air rifle shooters make it up to the Olympics and then just disappear," he says. "We are very open with the athlete about recognizing its existence. So it's important that Mehuli draws the line when it comes to shooting, for the simple reason that for a girl of her age if she's obsessed about just one thing all the time she might soon get bored."

Keeping the drive alive in the athlete, Karmakar says, can be an effective precautionary measure. He cuts down her sessions a few days prior to big tournaments and often doesn't slot her a practice session for two days in a row. "On the third day she returns like a hungry tigress and just blows away the targets."

Burnout fears aside, she has also has had to give up leading a regular teen's life. "I can't make it for school events or catch up with friends outside any more because shooting takes up most of my time now," says Mehuli. "The most difficult part is when you begin to switch your focus from a life with family and friends to a single-minded dedication in shooting. But once you do that and you enjoy the sport, it feels so good to be chasing a dream."

In a year crammed with major events, the Commonwealth Games in April are her biggest priority. She also has her sights on winning a 2020 Olympic quota at the World Championships in Changwon, South Korea later this year. Just ahead of the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Mehuli will be making her transition into the senior circuit at the World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico. It also means that she'd have to skip her high school board exams.

But she has another mini-test coming up: Living up to her coach's orders and cutting her social-media usage down to a bare minimum.

Karmakar doesn't advocate going cold turkey. "It's a distraction no coach favours," he says. "I've asked Mehuli to slowly phase it out and have been very clear with her that unless she willingly does it, I wouldn't be able to help."

Her deadline runs out in three days.