Veteran Sanjeev Rajput chases Olympic dream after Asian Games silver

AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Sanjeev Rajput is no stranger to success at the Asian Games, having won medals in 2006, 2010 and 2014. The silver medal at this year's Games, though, is special. "Sach Batao (to be frank), I have three medals but each of them has been in teams. (silver in 10m air rifle team and two bronze medals in the 50m three position rifle team events). I've never won an individual medal and that makes this one special," he says.

This medal in the men's 50m three position rifle also had additional significance for the 37-year-old, who is the oldest Indian to win a medal so far at the Asian Games. For on a day that a 16-year-old won India's first gold medal of the 2018 Games in shooting, Rajput's silver emphasised his continued relevance as the country's leading exponent in his event.

"It's obviously good that youngsters are shooting at such a high level and there is so much talent in the country," he says. "But I want to think that I too can compete at this level. It isn't that I am just chasing a medal to get some kind of record. I want to compete as long as I am capable of it. I think my age factor is just a number. If I'm in reasonably good shape, with good hand-eye coordination, I think I will still be good enough."

He compares himself favourably to the shooter he was back in 2006 when he made his Asian Games debut. While his hair has thinned and belly grown softer, he's made up for it with his experience. "I must have been 25 then. I was still in the navy back then so I know I was a lot fitter. But I had only three years of experience at that time. Today, I understand my game a lot better. I've learned to believe in myself a lot more. It's taken me several years to be able to approach my shooting with more confidence now," he says.

He has undoudtedly gone through tougher days too, fighting accusations of assault made by a fellow shooter over the past couple of years. He has also been without a job for the past four years; he resigned from the Navy having joined as a sailor at 18.

Without the security of the job, simply keeping the lights on in his shooting career has been hard. "There are so many expenses you have to consider when you are preparing on your own," he says. He gives the example of his padded jacket and trousers that he had made for the Games.

"I had to go to Korea and have it specially fitted for me. And it cost me INR 1.2 lakhs even after a discount. Depending on how much I train, my ammunition could cost over INR 4 lakhs a year. I've taken money from my Navy pension and my provident fund to pay for all of this," he says.

There's no guarantee of success either. "It wasn't until after I bought my suit that I could find out whether it will work or not. But that is a risk you have to take," he says. Here is a tough choice to be made, between providing for his family and chasing his dreams, but Rajput with the backing of his kin is chasing the latter.

"Ever since I first started shooting as a 22-year-old, the dream has been the same and it's to stand on an Olympic podium," says Rajput, who failed to make the finals in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

With that goal in mind, Rajput will hurl himself at the upcoming World Championships in Changwon, hoping to earn an Olympic quota. If he does, he would be close to 40, at his third Olympics in 2020. Yet there are no plans to quit. "The Asian Games silver is good but I really think the World Championships will be bigger. I'm not done. I still think I have a lot to win. And the Olympics still motivate me. I'm still chasing that. I'm still dragging myself towards that."