2018: Year of the younglings

ESPN India staffers pick their favourite athlete from 2018 (2:57)

ESPN India staff pick their standout athlete from the year gone by. (2:57)

Hours after her Asian Games heptathlon gold medal in August this year, the gravel road leading up to Swapna Barman's house was getting a hurried layer of concrete.

A battery of dignitaries was expected to visit, under heavy security cover, Swapna's parents Basana and Panchanan in Ghoshpara, Jalpaiguri to offer commendations.

The cacophony has now settled, but Swapna's life has changed.

So has food on the table and her mother's arduous shifts. Basana no longer needs to clock long hours at the tea garden or seek work as a domestic help.

For Swapna, just 22, the flush of success, fame and money is still new and unsettling. Much like her, there's a whole assemblage of young Indian players who are swirling in the bubbly froth of fresh stardom following medals at either of the two major competitions this year - Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

It's been a year that's clearly belonged to the youth. You could spot baby faces lining up at the starting blocks, shaping up for a perfect 10.9 at the target, hurling themselves past the finish line, climbing up podiums, wrapping themselves in the tri-colour and just telling the world they'd arrived.

Little big shots

Shooting in particular has seen a talent cloudburst.

Alternating between groggy rounds of the PUB-G video game, skipping school and taking their position in lanes alongside veterans, India's younglings wrecked the stage and danced on the embers. Six of India's 23 shooting medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games this year were won by athletes under 18 years of age.

It's no accidental success, nor a stroke of luck.

Since 2013, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) has been running an organized junior program, cradling amateur shooters. Coaches Jaspal Rana (pistol), and Deepali Deshpande and Suma Shirur (both rifle) - the first wave of Indian shooters who didn't belong to an army background or have a silver spoon snuck but still made noise on the circuit - are leading the charge of propping these adolescents onto the world stage.

This year across nine events, Indian shooters breached 11 world records, only two of which can have seniors staking claim.

Competing in her first World Cup in March this year, 16-year-old Manu Bhaker, who took up the sport just two years ago, blew away an experienced field which included local favourite and two-time World Cup gold medallist Alejandra Zavala in the 10m air pistol event. It helped that Manu had no idea who Zavela or the rest of the competitors were. "Ignorance and innocence are the biggest assets of this bunch of young shooters," says Deshpande. "They don't really care who they are up against or what their accomplishments are. For them it's just about showing up and trying to replicate what they've learnt."

What has also helped is the sprouting of academies by former shooters over the past few years, coinciding with the NRAI's program. Three shooters - Anushka Patil, Elavenil Valarivan and Shreya Agarwal, who finished with medals at the Suhl World Cup this year, belong to Gagan Narang's 'Gun for Glory' academy. Commonwealth Games silver medallist Mehuli Ghosh and 10-year-old Abhinav Shaw, who breached every conceivable record to become the youngest national champion, are both Joydeep Karmakar academy trainees.

"New shooters, barring a few who are totally fresh to the sport, come in with the right knowledge base since they've already been training at one of the top academies," says Deshpande. "Whatever they learn at the national camp is followed up on once they go back to their training base, so there's continuity to their learning. The earlier batch of shooters including Anjum (Moudgil) didn't have that kind of training so their growth was a lot slower."

Between Bhaker and fellow 16-year-olds Saurabh Chaudhary and Anish Bhanvala they already have three Commonwealth Games, two Youth Olympic Games and one Asian Games gold medal and have benefited richly from the program. Rana believes had there not been a systematic program in place when Manu and Saurabh came into the sport, they "might not have made the national squad."

Rana says his job as coach is to allow the young "to wage their own battles." Success in shooting, he says, is determined by how well you make those split-second decisions on your own in manically tense moments. "If they're taught to be dependent, it would pretty much be the end of their careers."


-Manu Bhaker makes Youth Olympics history with shooting gold

-What makes India's teenaged shooters the gold standard

-Baby's day out: PUB-G addict Shardul turns Asian Games medallist

Fire on the track

If the audacious Olympic track and field medal looks gettable now, Neeraj Chopra lies at the heart of that hope. He returned with gold medals from both the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, only the second Indian track and field athlete to do so after Milkha Singh. He was impressively dominant in Jakarta, hurling the top four throws in the competition.

Then there was Hima Das, her golden-streaked hair and joyful abandon telling you why she loves chasing time. The 18-year-old sprinter from Assam recorded her personal best 50.79 seconds in the 400m event at the Asian Games and finished with a silver medal. This was after she won gold at the U-20 World Championships in Tampere, Finland, becoming the first Indian track athlete to become a world champion at any level. For someone who'd begun training in the 400m event only a few months before the Commonwealth Games, it's been a phenomenal year.

Among the most enduring sport images was Swapna with a pink bandage strapped across her jaw, swallowing pain, battling injury and flashing a broad smile. She became the first Indian to win the women's all-round event at the Asian Games, a competition everyone around her thought she should not have competed in to start with due to injuries a month before Jakarta and trimmed training schedules. Coach Subhash Sarkar, though, wasn't willing to give up. "All these injuries... and other coaches were also pulling us down and advising her to go back home. But I knew what her biggest dream was - to be able to change her family's future - and I sold her on how a gold medal at the Asian Games was the surest path to it. After that, she bore everything that was thrown at her."


-Wonder woman Swapna Barman overcomes pain barrier

-Neeraj Chopra heads towards the stratosphere

-Hima Das' meteoric rise from an Assam village to the Gold Coast

Prodigy alert

Indian chess has had a year like no other. Never mind youth, these are kids scraping into the two-digits age tally, making news and having droning chess commentators start talking at an animated high pitch. T. The year began with the anxious wait for R Praggnanandhaa to become Grandmaster. He'd missed the cut-off to become the world's youngest GM in 2017. Finally, at 12 years, 10 months and 13 days he was It, but his record was broken within four months by Uzbek prodigy Javokhir Sindarov, younger by eight days.

Praggnanandhaa wasn't the only Indian chess rustling up a storm. Nihal Sarin, the reigning under-14 world No 1, also turned GM, securing his third norm in August. Before breaths could be gathered, 10-year-old Chennai boy D Gukesh came close to busting open the 'youngest GM in the world' record at the Sunway Sitges chess festival in Spain. He needed 2.5 points from the last three rounds, managed only two, missed the chance but certainly put his name out into chess' limelight.

Fame, Inc.

For most of these teens, to be suddenly accosted by money or having to learn to divide their day between training and felicitations is an open challenge. The accompanying lifestyle changes can also impact their performance in the sport. "Luxury can only make you a weaker athlete," says shooting coach Rana, "If we're dreaming of winning an Olympic medal these kids have to be protected because they can become their own biggest enemy."

Swapna's life changing gold for instance, has also affected coach Sarkar's duties - he trims her commercial engagements and keeps tabs on her bank account to prevent splurging of rapidly escalating rewards. Her family is being showered with expensive gifts from the shopaholic Swapna and her coach has let her be during the off season. "Once we resume training, I'll have to unclutter her life and weed out the distractions she's surrounded herself with, be it social media or just friends who're up to no good and start afresh. It's not easy... We've done this drill before when she used to often pack her bags and leave midway through training in a huff whenever she was angry or disappointed. I'm ready to do it all over again. This time around I know so is she."

Invisible forces at work

Beyond the individual coaches, family and government support, India's athletes also have a diligent army who redefine what athlete support means in India. Organizations like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), GoSports Foundation and JSW Sports have stepped in to plug the gap between athlete and continuous assistance -- whether in logistics, medical intervention, or training. From when an athlete is spotted and taken on board through an Olympic cycle. Eighty of OGQ's total pool of 143 athletes are juniors.

"We realized that there was a lack of a structured training programme for athletes at the developmental ages," says JSW Sports CEO Mustafa Ghouse, "This is what we have attempted to change through the establishment of the Inspire Institute of Sport, where we provide a high-performance training environment to junior athletes to help them make the transition to the senior levels." The IIS has 110 athletes across boxing, judo, wrestling and track and field, and houses the Bengaluru FC academy teams and between the U18s and U15s, with close to 50 junior footballers on its premises.

The best young athletes are first tracked by these organisations for at least six months to a year before they're being signed. OGQ has identified badminton, boxing, shooting, wrestling and archery as its priority sports. Their biggest investment says Neha Aggarwal, former table tennis player and current head of OGQ partnerships and communication, are "Foreign coaches... apart from equipment especially in sports like shooting or archery." They even have a network of doctors in Mumbai and NCR always available on call. "The athlete really just has to focus on performance and we're around for everything else," she says.

One of the biggest challenges for junior athletes in the country is the lack of competitions through the year. It's something, according to Ghouse, that JSW is trying to address by inviting athletes from other academies to train with IIS athletes and also send their athletes out for overseas exposure camps.

Other not-for-profits like GoSports have digressed from the conventional. In October this year, for the first time they opened out applications and picked a player from a non-Olympic/Paralympic sport, squash. Their athlete mentorship progam gives India's brightest young talent another layer of support featuring career guidance, legal and commercial advice and knowledge building. Aparna Ravichandran, Head, Partnerships at GoSports says that the athletes under this program have gone from three in 2014 to 19 in its second year and 25 in its fourth. One of the athletes they have been supporting since 2015 is Swapna.

The talent identification methodology across these bodies remains strenuous - an interview before a diverse panel to understand them better. "The goals articulated by athlete," says Ravichandran, "shouldn't be at odds with that of the coach because we essentially look at them as one single unit." The intention is to find "drive and intensity" from the athlete, which at the end produces champions.

Rana is talking about his shooters but his words apply to all the 2018 breakout performers. "How the shooters respond and handle their own success and transition to the senior half is crucial." he says. Twenty months from Tokyo 2020, he says, his sport is "at its peak" but needs to be careful." From here, he says "it can either turn spectacular or just go horribly wrong."

For India's fledgling sports stars, by demand life now gets boring. Tokyo is only 20 months away. So, Train. Rest. Compete. Succeed. Train. Rest. Compete. Succeed. Sustain. Repeat.