Manu Bhaker shoots her way to golden glory

Jonathan SelvarajESPN5 Minute Read
India's Manu Bhaker (centre) won the gold medal in 10m air pistol at the ISSF World Cup in Mexico.Photo: Ramkishen Bhaker

Manu Bhaker settled into her final shot with careful deliberation.

The battle for the gold medal in the 10m air pistol event at the ISSF World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico, was down to its final two contestants.

On paper it was a mismatch. Bhaker had turned 16 just a fortnight before competing in her first World Cup. Beside her was Alejandra Zavala, who, at 32, had an illustrious body of work including two World Cup Final gold medals and a fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. With a 1.3 point lead, Zavala was all but certain to add a World Cup gold to that career haul.

"At the last shot I was so far behind that I thought to myself, 'Never mind Manu you have got a silver, you can go for a gold medal next time'. But I decided to push myself once more," she says.

Bhaker extended her gun-bearing arm at the black circle -- 11.5mm at its widest -- and locked her elbow in place. Pausing until she was nearly perfectly still, she then squeezed the trigger on her pistol. The slug hit near dead centre on the 11mm-wide bullseye.

10.7.

Zavela erred, shooting an 8.8.

The 16-year-old put her hand to her mouth in shock at the realisation that she had just become the youngest Indian to win a gold medal at the Shooting World Cup.

The gold medal at Guadalajara might be her biggest-ever achievement -- apart from Zavala, Bhaker beat Rio Olympic gold medallist Anna Korakaki, silver medallist in London Celine Goberville, and Heidi Gerber, a bronze medallist in Rio -- but Bhaker had already been marked as something special. At the 2017 National Championships, she won nine gold medals including the marquee 10m air pistol, where she beat Olympian Heena Sidhu. A month later, at the Khelo India games, she set two other junior national records. There was little surprise at the end of January when she was named in the 27-member squad for the Commonwealth Games.

Bhaker is clearly a natural in a sport that Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has described as one of stillness. But it hasn't always been this way. Restless is how her father Ramkishen Bhaker would describe her. What makes her success even more remarkable is the breakneck progression of her career. Her World Cup gold medal was won less than two years after she picked up a pistol for the first time.

"She's played nearly everything. She began boxing when she was six, then played cricket, kabaddi, then tennis, Tang Ta (Manipuri martial arts) and then karate," says Ramkishen, a marine engineer.

It wasn't as if Bhaker, who grew up in Goria village in Haryana's Jhajjar district, was aimlessly drifting from one sport to another. "When she picks up a sport, she becomes obsessive about it. I've never forced her to compete, she just pushes herself to excel. She started boxing when she was six years old and within six months she won a bronze at the Haryana sub-junior championships. She was a state level champion in skating and she won medals in athletics too. She won a gold medal at the Tang Ta nationals and has a national medal in karate too," he says.

Successful as a martial artist, Bhaker first grew disillusioned with Tang Ta after losing what her father says was a rigged contest. After competing in karate for a year, she was introduced to shooting at her school -- Universal Senior Secondary School in Jhajjar. Ramkishen remembers exactly when - April 24, 2016. "In her first session her coach was very impressed. He told me she was shooting like someone who had been training for a year," he says. About two weeks after she started, her school took her to a local competition. "It was a prize money competition and because Manu won 3 medals, they gave her 3,100 rupees," says Ramkishen.

A young Manu Bhaker (fifth from the left) competes in a shooting competition in school.Ramkishen Bhaker

However, while Bhaker clearly took to the sport, one concern remained in her father's mind. "After her first day on the range, Manu told me she wanted her own gun. I told her that a gun was expensive and that she hadn't stuck to a sport for more than a year. She told me, 'Papa if I play for a year it will be good,'" recalls Ramkishen.

A month later, she had her very own Morini 10m air pistol - "One lakh forty thousand [about US$2152] before taxes," her father jokes. And it proved to be a good investment. On Sunday, Manu's gold medal-winning final shot was taken with the same pistol.

While the gold medal might have taken her by surprise, her coaches expected it. "If there is one thing that makes Manu special, it is that she fights to the end," says Priti Sharma, who has coached her in the national camp and was travelling with the Indian squad to Guadaljara.

With the scale of success Manu has enjoyed, it's often easy to forget that she hasn't yet graduated from school. "She is very talented and we have high expectations from her but you have to remember that she is just a child. She is an excellent shooter but she also loves soft toys and teddy bears," says coach Sharma.

Bhaker continues to have interests outside the sport too. At the national camp in New Delhi, Bhaker carried her school books with her. Balancing her studies with her sporting career, she scored a perfect 10 CGPA in her class 10 board exams. Unlike many other athletes who prioritise their sports by opting for easier subjects, Bhaker plans to prepare for her medical exams. "She wants to be a doctor," says her father. He isn't concerned that the workload might just be too hard. "It might be hard for others but when Manu puts her mind to something, she usually achieves it," he says.

Back in Guadalajara, Bhaker isn't done yet. She now has the chance to add to her medal haul at the 25m pistol and the 10m air pistol team event. Following the competition, she is now considered one of the favourites for the Commonwealth Games. "The competition at the World Cup is far superior to that at the Commonwealth Games. This win should boost her confidence tremendously," says Junior National coach Jaspal Rana.

In the midst of swirling expectations, though, Bhaker remains perfectly calm and secure in the knowledge that she has found the path meant for her. "I really want to win gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and also the Olympics. I'm very happy to have won here but it is only one win in a very long journey for me," she says.