Hours after Lakshay Sheoran won an Asian Games silver, his first medal at a major tournament, he sat alone in his room in Palembang, promising himself celebrations once he got back home. Before we could have mental images of late-night parties, Lakshay disarms us with his youth and innocence, "The only drink I can't get enough of is milk," he chuckles.
For the 19-year-old trap shooter from Jind, Haryana to finish second in a field of weathered shooters, which included mentor Manavjit Singh Sandhu, who's making his sixth Asian Games appearance, this was a breakthrough moment. More so since it's coming in only his third senior competition after two World Cups earlier this year. While the world around him is googling his name, Lakshay himself isn't surprised at what he has pulled off. "Mehnat se toh lag raha tha ki medal jeetunga (From the amount of hard work I'd put in, I thought I could win a medal)," Lakshay tells ESPN, "It's a big medal for me."
Sandhu, who'd topped the qualification, shot three out of the first five targets but later missed three targets in the seventh series and fell away. Lakshay hung around in contention and finished with 43 out of 50 points and a second position behind Chinese Taipei's Yang Kunpei.
It wasn't the first time he'd beaten Sandhu. Earlier in the selection trials back home, he'd scored an overall average of 117.13 to top the merit list and become the country's No. 1 trap shooter, pushing world champion Sandhu to second position. After his medal on Monday, he was prompt to touch Sandhu's feat in a visible mark of reverence. The gesture is common among wrestlers, not so much among solemn gun-toting athletes. It's perhaps drawn from closer home. Lakshay's father, Somveer pehelwaan, was a former wrestler who won the 1994 nationals but didn't seem to mind his son's affinity for arms over grappling arms in mud pits.
"I always had a liking for guns," says Lakshay, who had his beginnings in the sport four years ago at the Karni Singh range in New Delhi. "I started with air pistol and tried it for a month. I was just wandering around the range outside when I saw a bunch of shooters shotgun training. Something about it drew me instantly. It could be the outdoors or moving targets. I just knew I had to do this."
Coach Vikram Chopra, who heads the junior shotgun program which was formed by the National Shooting Federation together with the Ministry & SAI and under whom Lakshay has been training for the past four years, says the result isn't a surprise. For ease of training and commute, Lakshay stays with his uncle in Faridabad and hasn't been home in three months now.
"I'm no party boy. The only drink I can't get enough of is milk" Lakshay Sheoran
"The talent pool in trap is smaller than rifle or pistol in the country," Chopra says. "It's not as popular as rifle or pistol and fewer people take it up. We've been working hard on this bunch of young shooters and Lakshay has shown that the results are already here. The thing about him is that he's a fearless kid." Or as former Asian Games gold medalist trap shooter Ronjan Singh Sodhi describes him, a 'carefree shooter'.
In the 90-minute break between the qualification and final on Monday, Lakshay could barely stay still. "He was restless and just couldn't wait to shoot," says national shotgun coach Mansher Singh, "But once he walked into the field, he was calm, totally unfazed."
What also helped Lakshay, Sodhi feels, is the lack of expectation. "He went into the Games as an unknown shooter. No one was expecting a medal for him. The focus was on Manavjit (Sandhu) and I think that worked for Lakshay. It freed him from any pressure. He's the kind of boy who doesn't think too much during competition. No stress, no nerves."
On Monday, Lakshay found it hard to resist the background score. He was barely looking at the bright boards holding up scores or the steadily depleting field of competitors around him. His love for loud, peppy numbers offset by the tense setting of a final. Or so one would've imagined. He nodded gently to the music and later returned to his room in the Games village with a medal clasped between his fingers.
Between the qualifying and final round on Monday, Lakshay sneaked his coach a brief call. He was in a five-way tie with four other shooters, which included Sandhu, and Chopra was ready to talk him up and tell him not to worry too much about the result. "But before I could say anything, I heard his voice at the other end tell me, 'Sir aap tension mat lena' (Sir, don't be tense). I didn't know what to say after that. We both laughed."