Manu Bhaker looks to come out stronger from Asiad disappointment

Manu Bhaker after the final round of the 25m pistol women's shooting AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Late on Friday evening, on the asphalt outside the athletes village at the Jakabaring Sports City, Manu Bhaker goes out for a run. It's part of her training routine. The cardio will boost her lung capacity and strengthen her heart. It is preparation for the future.

It is so that when she competes, she will have a lower heart rate and shoot more consistently. Bhaker plods on the gravel alongside coach Jaspal Rana. There are times the 16-year-old stops and pauses to catch her breath.

Roadwork is the last thing on Bhaker's mind today. The Asian Games ended for her on Friday afternoon. In her last event - the 10m pistol - she shot scores of 9.8 and 9.9 to finish in fifth position. Without saying a word, she packs up her tools, picks up some of the debris she has left on the table beside her, and steps off the shooting line.

She smiles and acknowledges the crowd. "I feel ok. It was a learning experience for me," she would say in a soft voice, later. Coach Rana knows she's putting on a brave front. "She will smile but inside she will be crying. I feel bad for her also," he says.

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The father in Rana - he has a 16-year-old daughter of his own (a shooter just like Bhaker) - doesn't like to see her this way. But he knows it was inevitable.

Bhaker burst into national reckoning at the start of the year with a victory at the ISSF World Cup in Mexico. Then there were the two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. This was a girl who could do no wrong. One who had shifted effortlessly from boxing, to martial arts to shooting with no let-up in her medal winning capacity, all while maintaining perfect grades in school.

Bhaker was the poster child for the brave new world of Indian shooting, leading the charge of teenagers just like her. The Asian Games is the first sustained setback for Bhaker. The kids are still winning - fellow 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary won an air pistol gold and 15-year-old Shardul Vihan won a double trap silver.

Bhaker, though, has no prizes - stuffed toys or medals - to take home. She was not able to qualify for the final of the mixed-team event. Despite qualifying for the final of the 25m pistol with a record score, she stumbled in the final. And then the last defeat came on Friday.

What do you tell a 16-year-old who has suddenly got to deal with losses for the first time in her life?

"You tell them what they want to hear," says Rana, who puts an arm around her shoulder before telling her to wash her face. He will whisper positives to her. The fact that she made two consecutive finals. The fact that she shot high scores. The fact that there is something big in store for her in the future.

But the fact is that Bhaker lost. And Rana knows Bhaker hates losing. "She's a bit adamant about that. It's not a very typically 16-year-old thing but it's something that's typical of a champion," he says.

He also knows the defeats will be crucial to moulding Bhaker from a talented girl to a seasoned elite professional.

"You have to accept defeat with respect. Especially if your goals are the Olympics. If we say that Manu has to compete at the Olympics then she will face much bigger defeats. And if she can accept those defeats with respect then that is the biggest victory for me. If you only win and don't know how to accept defeats, you become too rigid and too stiff and you will break."

National junior coach Deepali Deshpande had said earlier that some of the early success for young Indian shooters had been due to the fact that they had no pressure on them in their initial tournaments. "But at some point they will lose that innocence. And how they deal with it will be crucial," she had said.

It seems cruel to subject a mid-teen to defeats. Especially when you know it will come. And particularly at a moment when they are away from any of their usual support systems.

"These kids have anyway grown too fast. They don't even know what it is like to be a regular teenager. They don't have friends around them. They don't have family around them. They are travelling every month. They don't see their family for one-and-a-half months. It is an artificial life," says Rana. "She's coping up well. To accept your defeat you need courage. Manu has that in her."

He however wants there to be some perspective on her defeats. "She has shot some excellent scores in competition here. She shot 593 (in qualifying in the 25m pistol) and I never shot a score like that in my youth. For anyone it is a dream come true to shoot a score of 593. But after that, it stays in the mind. It's not that you can just switch off the fact that you just shot a 593. And especially for a kid it is hard."

Which is why Rana will give Bhaker some time to soak in that feeling of failure. "I'll have lunch with her and then take her to the athlete's village."

There's a billiards table there, but Bhaker won't be shooting pool. She will sit in a corner, put on her earphones and shut herself out of the world for a bit.

Come evening though, Bhaker and Rana will once again be pounding the gravel. But what does she think of it? Rana turns to Bhaker and asks her to give an honest answer.

"It's not something I enjoy. It's not fun but I know it's good for me," Bhaker says.