CWG snub drives shooter Shahzar Rizvi to gold in Mexico

Photo courtesy: Shahzar Rizvi

A day before his event at the ISSF Shooting World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico, Shahzar Rizvi messaged his coach Ronak Pandit over Whatsapp. "Sir, I'm going to win the gold," Rizvi wrote. It was a bold prediction, especially since Rizvi was making his World Cup debut. That self-belief was justified on Saturday with Rizvi setting a world record score in the final on his way to a maiden gold.

Rizvi was highly motivated to do well in this particular event. "I had a point to prove. I wanted to show people I was the best," he says.

The 23-year-old has been seething for a while now.

In January this year, Rizvi received an unpleasant surprise when India's shooting squad for the Commonwealth Games was announced. India's representatives in the 10m air pistol would be Jitu Rai and Om Prakash Mitharwal. That Rizvi was not included in the 27-member team announced by the national federation was particularly galling because he was in the middle of the richest vein of form in his career.

"Shahzar is a no-nonsense shooter. He doesn't complain of what he doesn't have. He doesn't bother if he is missing a skill or a resource. He makes do with what he has." Coach Ronak Pandit

Just a month earlier, Rizvi had won gold in the 10m air pistol event at the National Championships. Prior to that, he had won gold at the Commonwealth Shooting championships held at Brisbane's Belmont Shooting Complex -- the same venue where the Commonwealth Games will be held.

"I couldn't understand why I was dropped. I thought I was shooting really well," says Rizvi.

The decision took Rizvi's coach Ronak Pandit by surprise too. "It was a jolt. Based on his recent results, I was sure he was going to be picked," says Pandit, who also wrote a letter to the federation asking them to reconsider their decision.

But there was no change to the Indian squad. "The Federation had their limitations. They have to send a reduced team size and the fact that both Jitu and Om Prakash participate in two events (10m pistol and 50m pistol) went in their favour," says Pandit.

None of this helped lessen Rizvi's hurt, however. "He was clearly very disturbed about not being picked. That is a dangerous situation for a shooter to be in. It could be a very damaging thought if you think people hate you and want to bring you down. It was a challenge to keep his spirits high," Pandit says.

If there was anyone Rizvi still trusted, though, it was Pandit.

Rizvi, who hails from a family of competitive shooters (cousins Riyayan and Shaul are both national level double trap shooters while his brother shot pistol at the national level) in Mawana, near Meerut, found success early in a career that began in 2012. He won a national gold in 2015 and another at the Asian Championship in 2016. But even though he was considered a talented prospect, he had begun to feel he was stagnating. And so in March last year, he began working with Pandit, a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist who also coaches multiple World, Commonwealth and Asian medallist Heena Sidhu.

Pandit reminded Rizvi of the target he had set when the latter had first approached him. "He told me that his goal was the Olympics. And if that was the target, the Commonwealth Games need not be a priority. I told him that while he might not be okay with the decision, he had to use it to steel himself for the future, I explained that shooting is a measurable sport. His scores would have to speak for themselves, " says Pandit.

For Rizvi, the lesson was simple. "I didn't want to give anyone a chance to doubt me again," he says.

"I'm not satisfied just yet. I have three other World Cups that I will be taking part in this year and I want to win gold in all of them" Shahzar Rizvi

The original plan was for Rizvi to skip the World Cup and train for the Commonwealth Games, but Rizvi insisted he travel for the competition. The late decision to travel nearly came to nothing with Rizvi's visa to Mexico coming through at the last minute. Instead of reaching Mexico on February 28, resting for a day and then training a day before his competition, Rizvi arrived only on March 1. It wasn't the ideal way to prepare, but Pandit felt Rizvi could pull it off. "Shahzar is a no-nonsense shooter. He doesn't complain of what he doesn't have. He doesn't bother if he is missing a skill or a resource. He makes do with what he has," says Pandit.

It also helped, says Pandit, that the field in Mexico was a depleted one. "When I saw the competition he had, I was confident that he would at least reach the final," says Pandit.

Rizvi shot a modest score of 579 in qualifying to enter the final in seventh place. Once in, though, the gold was as good as sealed. "We had two weeks before the World Cup and coach had made me practice shooting in finals. I was shooting 245 regularly. I only finished with 242.3 because I shot an 8.9 and an 8.5 in the second round of shots, " says Rizvi, who is now looking to erase those minute errors too. "Because I arrived late to the venue, I wasn't able to adapt to the conditions which were a little hot. I overheated and made some simple mistakes. These are areas I have to work on," he says.

A day after returning to India, Rizvi will head straight to Pandit's academy in Pune. He now has bigger targets in mind. Pandit says Rizvi could well win an Olympic quota at the World Championships in September this year. Rizvi has that - and more - in mind. "I'm not satisfied just yet. I have three other World Cups (Munich, Fort Benning, USA, and Changwon, South Korea) that I will be taking part in this year and I want to win gold in all of them. I might not get a chance to win gold at the Commonwealth Games but becoming the number one shooter in the world is bigger than that," he says.