Woman of steel: Sarnobat strikes gold with second shot at career

'World Championships my next target' - Sarnobat (2:05)

'World Championships my next target' - Sarnobat (2:05)

"Attention", cries the range marshal. Red lights flash off around the target at the Jakabaring shooting range. Two duelers in front of them raise their pistols. In a few seconds, the din of gunfire will roar through the range.

Sweat beads gathered around foreheads and pooled stickily to the backs of spectators here. It isn't just due to the fact that one end of the range in Palembang had been opened up for the 25m pistol finals, and with it, let in the 34 degree late afternoon humidity in this city in tropical Sumatra.

It must have been many degrees more stifling for the two shooters on the range competing for a gold medal at the Asian Games. The heat and pressure of shooting in the finals had already done strange things to the contenders. Six of them, including 16-year-old Manu Bhaker who had shot an Asian Games record in qualifying, had been eliminated. Of the two left on the range, the heat had certainly got to Thailand's Yangbaipoon, too.

Before the final two series of five shots, Yangbaipoon had led by two points - a near insurmountable gap. Victory seemed all but assured when her 27-year-old Indian opponent Rahi Sarnobat would shoot only a two. The Thai simply needed to put a single shot on the target out of five attempts. It was the equivalent of having five match points and incredibly, she missed every one.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally

Sudden death now. A shootout for the gold. Pressure cooker time. The vice clamped tighter when both shooters shot identical fours in the next series. The shooters load their cartridge again. One more round of Russian roulette. This is sweaty palm, shivering muscles and knotty stomach territory. But only for one person out there. "Poor Yang," Sarnobat will say later.

Sarnobat's mind was calm, her arm rock steady. She slowly talked herself through her shot.

See your sights. Keep it smooth. Keep a clean trigger finger.

Don't go by her easy smile. There's a core of steel inside. "I was never nervous. This part of my game is where my mastery is. I love this half of my competition. I love finals," she would say later. Sarnobat reveals this following the second shoot-off, where she hits three out of five targets to her opponent's two. The gold is hers, as is the honour of becoming the first Indian woman to win a shooting event at the Asian Games.

Sarnobat isn't too big on the qualifiers. She had only sneaked through to the finals in second to last place, well behind the enigmatic 16-year-old wonder kid Bhaker. That didn't bother her. Like she says, finals are a lot more enjoyable.

"Whatever you did in qualifying doesn't matter. You have a second chance in the finals. This is a second chance for you. And when you get a second chance, sometimes it is your destiny to win something."

Sarnobat knows all about second chances. She is living one.

Back in the summer of 2014, Sarnobat was amongst India's most prominent pistol shooters with medals including a World Cup gold in Changwon in 2013. A freak accident nearly ended her entire career. Heading to practice in Pune, she tripped over a step and broke her fall with her shooting elbow. It was diagnosed as a hairline fracture.

The Olympics were in sight and Sarnobat continued to train. She even won a gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She did so in incredible pain. Everytime she shot the pistol, the recoil caused the shattered bones in her arm to grind together. "When I picked up a gun, I wouldn't be able to keep my elbow flexed. After a few shots it would simply open out," she recalls.

Through excruciating pain, Sarnobat continued to shoot until she couldn't anymore. Advised to rest, it took seven months before she was allowed to shoot again. Sarnobat did nothing for all that time but wait. "I didn't want to do anything else. I just wanted to get back to shooting," she says.

The rehabilitation was slow and frustrating. "When I first attempted to shoot again, my doctor said I should try a series of five shots to start with. I cried when I shot my first shot because it was so painful. I never cry in front of people but it was so painful."

It was only in the winter of 2016 that Sarnobat would begin competing again. The long layoff meant she had a point to prove, not to others but herself. "I wanted to believe that I could come back stronger."

She would do all it took to give herself the best possible chance. In November 2017, she would hire Mongolian-German shooter Munkhbayar Dorjusren as her personal coach. It was a brave decision, especially since she wasn't being funded by the government and did not have the backing of too many sponsors. Dorjsuren, a two-time Olympic medalist and a double world champion, doesn't come cheap. One coach estimates she charges many hundreds of dollars a day. Sarnobat's salary as a government employee isn't nearly enough to pay for that.

"Even if I spend all my salary I couldn't afford her," Sarnobat says. Instead, she dips into her savings from the prize money awarded for her painful triumph at the Commonwealth Games. Sarnobat is going all in. Dorjsuren will now be with her until the 2020 Games.

Dorjsuren was also in the crowd in Palembang. Her experience as a shooter didn't spare her from all the emotions that those seated around her felt. "Of course I was nervous. With a double shoot-off I didnt know what to expect," Dorjsuren would say after the final.

Sarnobat herself, however, had no such doubts.

"I was fine. I could even have shot four more shoot-offs if I had to."