After tough debut, Olympic final 'not a galaxy far away' anymore for Elavenil Valarivan

Elavenil Valarivan finished 16th in the women's 10m air rifle qualification. Ju Huanzong/Xinhua via Getty Images

"Please hold my hand. It's shaking," Elavenil Valarivan would plead to coach Deepali Deshpande after her second series in qualification. The 21-year-old current women's 10m rifle world No. 1 would go on to shoot a perfect 10.9 in the third, push her average to 10.4 and come within striking distance of the top eight for the first time in the round with a tenth position climb. Fellow Indian and world record holder Apurvi Chandela struggled in the middle-reaches of the 50-woman field and would eventually drop to 37 with 621.9. At the end of 60 shots and 75 minutes of early-morning arithmetic for Indian sports fans, Elavenil posted a score of 626.5 to finish in 16th position. Both Indians missed the eight-woman final, one with the learnings of a debut Games, the other with the agony of a second Olympics gone kaput. Elavenil still holds a strong prospect of a medal in the mixed team event, partnering the men's 10m rifle world No 1, Divyansh Panwar.

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Stationed behind Elavenil through the match, Deshpande says she discovered surprising growth and an unusually calm version of her usually impatient student. "Generally if Ela isn't in the zone or not feeling great she won't look into my eyes during matches. Today wasn't one of those days. She was really calm, composed and extra cautious. While that tactic is ideal for the first 20-30 shots, once she'd settled into her zone she should have let her rhythm and instincts take over. The idea is to not shoot all 60 shots in the same manner. She asked me to hold her hand after the second series, I told her she's doing fine," she says.

"In the third it was clear she was feeling more comfortable and shooting in her natural style, but she continued to play it carefully even after that, which was a tactically wrong move. This is her first Games and the one thing she's realised today is that the Olympic final is not a galaxy far away." The final entrant in the eight-woman final was Russia's Anastasiia Galashina (who eventually won silver) at 628.5 after a nervy 8.8 last shot threw Italian Sofia Ceccarello off the elite pool.

Apurvi, who had a spectacular 2019 with two World Cup golds and a silver, emerged a different shooter following the pandemic-induced break. At the New Delhi World Cup in March this year she managed only 622.8 in qualification and finished in 26th position among 48 shooters. She recovered from Covid and flew with the Indian team to Croatia but her Osijek World Cup scores were limp. "After her pre-event training yesterday (Friday) she told me she was finding it hard," says her coach Rakesh Manpat. "The only advice I gave her was to give her best and leave the lane with no regrets. Today after qualification she dropped me a text saying 'I gave my best'. That's all you can ask from an athlete."

For the first time at this Games, the number of female shooters have surpassed the total strength of male shooters in the individual events. The field didn't carry a defending champion from the previous Games and held the promise of an open contest and a new Olympic star. China's Yang Qian, 21, turned out to be the anointed one. The Chinese and Koreans arrived in Tokyo surrounded in mystery - everyone guessing they're pretty good, yet no one had seen them in the flesh, shooting in competitions, in well over a year.

China carried out rigorous nine-day selection trials in Guangzhou in April - favouring form over past results, which had 2018 World Championship winner Zhao Ruozhu fall by the wayside and the young duo of Qian and Wang Luyao being picked. The 20-year-old American Carolyne Mary Tucker, who tutored herself through YouTube videos in her family garage, had flown back with three medals at the New Delhi World Cup this year including a gold in the individual event. Norwegian Jeanette Hegg Dusestad shot a 632.9 Olympic record in qualifying only to be swept aside to fourth spot in the final while Iran's Fatemeh Karamzadeh, who posted a stunning score of 633.6 at the Osijek World Cup a few weeks ago, didn't even make the top eight in qualifying.