Archery mates Tarundeep Rai and Pravin Jadhav stay sharp amid lockdown

Pravin Jadhav (l) and Tarundeep Rai during a training session at the Army Institute of Sports, Pune, where they're both currently lodged in. Tarundeep Rai

Tarundeep Rai and Pravin Jadhav, who make up two of the three members in the Olympic-bound men's recurve archery team, find themselves in an unimaginable bonding scenario. They haven't been home in months, one longer than the other, and find themselves living out their lockdown days in the company of each other at the national camp base in the Army Institute of Sports, Pune.

Being stranded in a training facility offers field archers like them the advantage of practice, more precisely a 70m target distance outdoors. Their third team member, Atanu Das, is making do with five-metre distance practice in the living room of his South Kolkata home.

Jadhav hasn't been home to Sarade village in the drought belt of Satara district, Maharashtra since October 2018. His parents, both daily wage earners, have also had their source of livelihood dry up under the pandemic-induced lockdown.

"My father works as a construction labourer and my mother takes up jobs as a farm help, but right now neither can go to work," says Jadhav. "Thankfully I was able to send them money through a friend's bank account for supplies. I owe it to my job in the army (havildar at 83 Armored regiment) which I found because of archery."

It's not the only thing he's thankful to a life in sport for.

In June last year, the team's upset win over sixth seeds Canada to qualify for the World Championships quarterfinals, earned the country a full three-member quota along with as many qualifying slots for the men's individual event at the Tokyo Games. It was the first time since the 2012 London Olympics that the men's team had managed to secure a quota. In the 2016 Rio Games, Atanu was the lone male entrant from India.

The trio of Jadhav, Rai and Atanu eventually lost to China in the World Championships final, to finish with a silver medal. It however brought an instant reward: Electricity to Jadhav's home.

The 23-year old's house hadn't been electrified after his family's earlier mud dwelling had been washed away. His father had twice paid up the installation charges and despite a number of visits to the local power supply office, the problem remained unattended.

"But within a few days of my World Championships medal, someone from the electricity department visited our home and hooked us up with a power connection. It's when I realised what sport can do," he says.

Over the last two years, Jadhav has stalled a visit back home partly because of his fear of falling out of practice and the other more understated reason of delaying marriage. It's not a commitment he wants to explore while he's still competitively engaged in sport.

"Back in my village there are no facilities to train at all. Being away from the sport even for a week really brings my whole level down to zero. It's why I go home scarcely," Jadhav says.

It's not a misplaced feeling since Jadhav is still digging his heels into the sport. Despite his family's limited economic resources, he managed to pursue sport through Maharashtra government's Krida Prabodhini scheme which offered him access to education, proper diet and training facilities.

He started off as an 800m runner, training in Balewadi, Pune but he didn't have great results coming his way. Soon after he switched to archery, Jadhav won two medals at the School Nationals, prompting him to stick around in the sport. He made his international debut as a 19-year-old at the Asia Cup Stage 1 in 2016.

"If I didn't have sport," Jadhav says, "I would have been a daily wage worker like my father."

The dream of a maiden Olympics has been keeping him fueled these 17 months away from home.

"I play it in my head, the crowds, walking into the field, a medal, every night before I go to bed," he says. "I also want to be able to build a better house for my family someday."

Jadhav's parents are aware that its sport that's keeping him away from home, but the magnitude of his pursuit is lost on them. "They're unlettered," he says. "They don't know what an Olympics is. But they are happy for me."

They patiently hear Jadhav excitedly talk about the medals he has won and the big one he's dreaming of, and offer a persistent query in response: "Ghar kab aaoge? (When will you be home?)"

It's a question Jadhav's senior teammate Rai, too, wakes up to every morning during anxious video calls with his wife and eight-year-old son back in Namchi, Sikkim. Unlike Jadhav, Rai finds himself stranded in Pune out of circumstance, not choice.

"The army movement order barred us from traveling after March 15," says Rai, who last visited home in August last year. "But around that time the Olympics still hadn't been postponed so all of us were at the national camp. Once the lockdown was announced and the Tokyo Games deferred, it was too late for me to travel."

A sepoy in the 5th Gorkha Rifles, Rai became the first Indian archer to win an individual silver medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. He made his Olympic debut at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when Jadhav was just seven. At 36, the calculus of a sudden 12-month pause to qualify for another Olympic Games lies in how much Rai can make of his aging muscles and slowing reflexes.

The daily training schedule for Rai and Jadhav involves two hours of practice in the morning and an hour's session in the evening. The training load is barely a fraction of their regular sessions.

"The idea is not to do any progressive work right now," says Rai. "Usually each of us shoot anywhere between 500-600 arrows but now it's down to 100-150. The focus is just on keeping up muscle memory."

Even during training, Jadhav and Rai are maintaining social distancing norms, making sure their individual arrows don't come into contact and that they are standing five meters away from one another while shooting.

The light training, technical work and absence of competitions has also opened up time for Rai to work on his physical fitness. The mess at the ASI is still functional but with a limited menu, largely restricted to rice, lentils and vegetables, on offer.

"The diet has helped me touch almost ideal weight," says Rai, who has shed 10 kgs since last year. "I'm more of a meat eater so with that missing I've lost a lot of weight."

Rai goes for a jog around the compound every morning and follows it up with exercise sets for his core and abs, including planks, sit ups and free hand drills. In the evenings, he shifts to an intensive gym session for around 90 minutes with the work revolving around strengthening his rhomboid (shoulder blade) and back muscles, used most by archers for drawing.

"With age, the muscle recovery is slow," says Rai. "You can tell age is creeping up on you when your mind wants to work hard but the body won't hold up and tires easily. In the normal cycle of competition I didn't want to work out too much and strain or pull a muscle. But now I have the time to build on strength and fitness so when competitions resume I might be physically better placed to push harder."

The Olympics means different things to the senior and junior archer. For Jadhav, it holds the pangs of a debut while for Rai, Tokyo will be his third and final stab at a medal. The extra year of time, Rai feels, also opens a realistic prospect for a bronze or silver for the team.

"It's natural for people to not count us in among contenders since archery has never won India an Olympic medal. But this time, I think we stand a good chance," says Rai, "When the next Games after Tokyo happens, I will be 40 and I don't want to hang around that long and deprive juniors a spot. This is my last chance to make a difference and make up for all the months I've been away from my son."