One ring to bind them: Deepika Kumari, Atanu Das embrace 'unexpected gift of time'

Atanu Das and Deepika Kumari have been engaged for close to two years now. Atanu Das

Hours before the country went under a 14-hour lockdown last weekend, Atanu Das and Deepika Kumari managed to leave the national camp in Pune and fly back home to Kolkata around daybreak. The archers, who are an engaged couple, have been putting off marriage until after the Tokyo Olympics. With the Games now pushed back by a year, they are now revisiting their decision.

"The original idea was to focus completely on the Olympics and get married once it's over," Atanu tells ESPN, "But now, with the postponement, we're having second thoughts. We've been engaged for close to two years now. Maybe once the virus scenario eases, we might get married this year."

Atanu and Deepika were part of the group of top national archers who had been camping at the Army Institute of Sports, Pune, training for the Olympics. The pandemic has suddenly unchained them from a life that revolves wholly around training and a shared coexistence with teammates. "We were really lucky," says Atanu, "Four out of six flights that were scheduled around the same time as ours were cancelled. We're just so glad to be back home with my parents in time or we would have been stuck in camp for at least the next couple of weeks or months. It would have driven us crazy."

Both Atanu and Deepika have already won quota places for the Olympics. While Atanu together with Tarundeep Rai and Pravin Jadhav comprised the men's team which was assured of a spot after a 5-3 win over Canada in the pre-quarterfinals of the World Championships, Deepika did so with a gold medal finish (individual event) at the Asian Continental Qualifying tournament in November last year. The Games being deferred now gives both of them "the unexpected gift of time", Atanu believes.

They have both been to the Olympics before, Deepika making her debut at the 2012 London Games and Atanu in Rio 2016, and are familiar with the colossal scale of the competition and its attendant trappings.

"After my Rio experience," says Atanu, "I learnt how important it is to have the right mind. Our sport is so much about being able to manage confidence, concentration and anxiety. The margin between medal and no medal is just so narrow. In Rio, I was shooting fine, but my mental strength wasn't up to the mark." In the individual recurve pre-quarterfinals at the Rio Games, shooting through a steady drizzle, Atanu put up a fight against world No 8 Lee Seung-Yun. In the decisive fifth set, after being tied 19-19 from the first two shots, Atanu needed 10 to take the match into a shoot-off. Nerves took over and he managed to shoot only a 9.

Meanwhile, Deepika, a former world number one, has had her own share of big moments. She has 23 World Cup medals, five of them gold, apart from two gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and an Asian Games bronze medal from the same year.

Their worlds so ruled by the 122cm-diameter target made up of 10 concentric scoring rings separated by five colors, and the obsessive pursuit of the 12.2cm innermost gold ring worth a perfect shot of 10, it is a blessing, Atanu says, that he found companionship in a fellow archer.

They first met at the Tata archery academy in Jamshedpur in 2008 and soon turned into friends. "We've known each other for so long so there's a strong bond of friendship and whole lot of comfort between us," says Atanu, "We only started seeing each other around three years ago but we didn't want the other archers and our teammates to know about it really so we kept it private. We only made it public around the time we got engaged in December (2018)." Much like their wedding, they'd even picked out their engagement date mindful of it not falling within the Olympic qualification period.

"I've learnt so much from Deepika," says Atanu, "Her attitude of karna hai to karna hai (if you have to do it, you have to do it) is something I admire. Also the effort she puts into her physical fitness. It hasn't slackened in all the years I've known her.

Now, since what they can do in terms of training is restricted to the indoors as opposed to normal routines of shooting targets from 70 meters away, they're using this time on fortifying their minds, focusing on yoga and meditation sessions. "On Sunday offs at the camp every week, both of us spend the whole day roaming malls," says Atanu, "We're alike that way. We both love the same things. We can talk about our sport with each other endlessly and yet not sound crazy."