Just a few days before the women's 25m pistol event at the Junior World Championship in Lima, where she would eventually win a gold medal on Monday, Naamya Kapoor's hopes were under a cloud. Her gun, bought just a few months ago, wasn't shooting true. Instead of a reliable grouping, the fired pellets were spread out over several centimeters - a serious problem in a sport where the 10 point ring is just 10 centimeters across. "The sights had become misaligned because of which her shots were not centering. If her sight was set on the 10 ring, the pellet would hit the 7 ring. Normally you could adjust the sight but this time, it wasn't working," says her coach Ankit Sharma.
This is a serious enough issue for experienced shooters, let alone a junior one. And Naamya, all of 14 years old, was only barely a junior, who was competing for the first time for the Indian team. "Anyone would have panicked, forget it happening to a 14-year old kid. It was a serious technical issue and it took two days for coach Jaspal Rana to make the changes to the gun. Even after that, we weren't sure how Naamya would be able to shoot," says Sharma. As it turned out, she wouldn't show any sign of being affected. She shot a career high 580 in the qualifying stage before coasting to victory in the final - beating another Indian prodigy, Manu Bhaker - to become the youngest Indian to win a junior world title.
"That's the kind of shooter she has always been. She's never someone who gets too much pressure on herself. Those kinds of shooters are really rare," says her first coach Sabbir Khan. Khan is still taken aback by her achievement. "She's still this little girl. We still call her gudiya (doll) because she's so young. And now she's a world champion," he says.
Few expected Naamya to achieve what she has as early as she did. She first entered the range not to shoot but to accompany her elder sister Khushi, who is also a national level shooter now. "Her mother brought her to the range. At that time, she was only around 8 years old, so no one really thought she could shoot. But she kept looking at the other shooters. She was observing what they were doing. After a few weeks, I thought I might as well give her a gun and see what she could do. She was this tiny kid and she shot a near perfect grouping of shots. People take several years to get that sort of grouping and she had it on her first attempt. That's when I knew she was special. That was when I told her parents to introduce her to the sport. I said aap dekho kaha se kaha jati hai, (You just see how far she goes)" says Khan.
Because she was so small, Khan initially made her sit in a chair and shoot so as to not overexert her muscles. Soon though, she was standing and shooting with the other athletes. By the time she was 12, Naamya was regularly competing, shooting a score of 373 out of 400 at the Delhi state championships. In 2019, she would switch to shooting the 25m pistol event as well. "She always enjoyed the power of the bore pistol rather than the air pistol. Even though she was small, she liked the heavier trigger sensitivity of the 25m pistol rather than the air pistol," says Khan. It was with the aim of competing in the 25m pistol event that Naamya began a switch to train under coach Ankit Sharma in Faridabad - since his academy was one of only two in the National Capital Region that has a 25m range.
Within the same year, she would take part at the National Championships (the competition sets the minimum age for participants at 12 years old). The tiny kid would turn heads there, finishing 28th in the senior category of the 25m pistol event out of a total of 151 shooters and 12th among juniors with a score of 566, missing the final by a single shot.
Her scores would only improve from there and Sharma says she was shooting scores in the range of 575 and 585 in practice.
Despite her steadily improving scores, its fair to say that Naamya wasn't the favourite at the Junior World Championships. That would have to be Olympian and multiple-time World Cup winner Manu Bhaker. As she travelled to a competition for the first time by herself, her parents priority was her safety. "Her mother and I kept telling her to make sure she stayed with her teammates at all times. We didn't talk about the competition that much. I was nervous because she is so young and travelling without her family but she was just excited to be going for her first tournament," says father Praveen Kapoor.
If there was anyone who wasn't going to be overawed by her senior rivals it was going to be Naamya. "A long time ago, when Manu had just won the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, Naamya came up to me and said that she was going to beat her. At that time, I chided her saying she shouldn't talk about her seniors this way. But she was always very adamant. She has a great sense of self belief," says Khan.
In Lima, Naamya would shrug off not just the reputation of her fellow finalists but also her own recent issues with her weapon. "That's just how she has always been. She is able to control any nervousness. If things haven't gone right, she's able to put them very quickly behind her and focus on the next shot," says Sharma.
The junior title won, Sharma says her next task will be to push for a place in the senior squad. He's optimistic about her prospects. "Right now her growth has been extraordinary. She's a coach's dream. There are no challenges like you might expect when you are coaching another 14-year old. She's like a blank sheet - anything you teach gets imprinted in her brain. In the next couple of years, she could be really special," he says.
For now though, her individual competition done, Naamya is happy returning to the life of a regular 14-year old. "After she won the gold medal, I spoke to her and congratulated her. But she was more interested in whether she would get a gift from me. She's been asking me for an Iphone for a long time and after she won she said 'ab to i Phone la do!' (at least now can I get an iPhone)," says her father Praveen.