November 21, 2019. Day 4 of the ISSF World Cup Final in Putian, China. Just past 11 AM local time, Manu Bhaker breaks the world junior record en route to winning gold in the (senior) women's 10m air pistol.
Less than three hours later, Elavenil Valarivan wins gold in the women's 10m air rifle. In the day's final event, Divyansh Panwar takes gold in the men's 10m air rifle. Bhaker and Panwar are 17. Valarivan is 20. One day, three events, three youngsters, three golds.
In 2017, India had three golds across four World Cups and the season-ending World Cup final. In 2018, that number became four. By the end of Putian and the close of the 2019 season, India had won 21 golds.
As the calendar turned over to 2020, India's shooters, led by a posse of hyper-talented, expertly-trained youngsters, were primed for the Tokyo Olympics. India had won 15 Olympic quotas already, eight of them secured by shooters aged 22 or under. At least two more -- Valarivan, world No. 1 in women's 10m air rifle, and 17-year-old Anish Bhanwala, world No. 12 in men's 25m rapid-fire pistol -- were expected to be sewn up before Tokyo. The Olympics wouldn't know what hit them.
Then, the pandemic struck.
Bhaker, the current world No. 2 in women's 10m air pistol and world No. 1 (and world record holder) in the mixed 10m air pistol team event (along with fellow 18-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary), remembers how she felt when she first heard the news of the postponement of the Games. "I actually couldn't believe it," she reflects, quietly. "It took me a lot of time to process it.
"I started shooting in 2016. Since then it has been continuous training and competition. Non-stop. It gets tiring," she says. "There were back-to-back competitions, though, and because of that I never really minded it. I miss competition.
"I miss that part -- camp, competition, travelling. But health is more important than anything else," she says as she recounts how her heart keeps wanting to get back onto the circuit, and her head keeps reminding her of the larger picture, of what's at stake.
"I've accepted it now."
Once that happened, she decided to make the most of the break. "I tried out horse riding, painting and sketching. I even drove a tractor around. I just wanted to keep trying something different."
A major outcome of that acceptance has been the reduction of the intensity of her training. From an absurd 10-12 hours a day ("I know, it was crazy"), it has been cut to three-four hours ("I'm not focusing a lot on training") at the electronic range that was set up at her home.
"I am just trying to maintain form, stability," she says before adding that despite all that, daily workouts are a mandatory part of her schedule. That is, after all, the one thing she has control over, maintaining her physical fitness.
At times like this, though, it is often more about psychological stress than anything physiological. These are uber-competitive teenagers and twenty-somethings who cannot even remember the last time the constant stress of performance was not on them. Who have been going full pelt for a sustained, lengthy period with a fixed goal in mind. Who have been competing, and winning medals, all the time, everywhere. Now, it's just nothing. A nothingness filled with uncertainty, doubt, anxiety. It would be understandable, forgivable, and even normal if this cloud seeped into their thinking.
But these are not 'normal' kids.
You can almost hear the smile when Bhaker says, "Mentally, I think I'm fit only. It's simple -- one needs to cope with the situation, understand it, and take a decision. There's no worry."
You can see what's she doing here -- this is just another competition for her to win, and she's approaching it with the same calm decisiveness. It is slightly disconcerting, and immensely impressive.
"Everything has gone for a toss. We've taken a step back and now we go back to the drawing board."
That's Suma Shirur, the team's high-performance coach, about what she calls the "periodisation plan". The plan was entering its final leg when the pandemic hit its stride -- the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) was readying a 17-member team for the test event scheduled ahead of the Olympics. That's when competitions, including the test event, were cancelled across the board. Training camps got postponed. The team's training and competition schedule, planned in minute detail by the NRAI and its coaches specifically to enable the shooters to peak in time for the big O, got thrown in the bin.
For those in charge, this is the biggest challenge that the postponement has posed. Every Olympics-bound athlete works to a four-year cycle with that event at the Games as the culmination; any tweak to that carefully calibrated and constructed plan -- leave alone an entire year's delay -- could have disastrous results. Especially for a team that is as full of relatively young athletes as this. So, back to the drawing board they have gone.
Step one in the periodisation plan v2.0 was surprisingly basic. Get the athletes their equipment. The central government had announced the first nationwide lockdown right when the shooters had been on a week's break, ahead of the first World Cup of the year in New Delhi. Many of them had left camp without as much as a pellet, and the federation had to scramble.
"This was something of concern," says Shirur. "Without equipment, they couldn't even do dry training." Dry training is essentially shooting without actually shooting -- look at a wall, hold the (unloaded) gun assuming you are pointing at a target in a range, maintain posture and form, and pull the trigger. Over and over again. It's about as exciting as you might imagine.
It took a month for equipment to be arranged for most of the contingent, with online classes simultaneously organised for group physical training. "This was to not only ensure they remained fit, but also to give everyone some motivation. Sure, it's online but it's time spent together." For a team that had been living and training and competing together for over years, this was important.
"The biggest challenge is keeping their motivation," admits Shirur. "For the duration of the lockdown, they were alone." And that's something they're just not used to.
However, in one way, the past few months have been good for the shooters, says Shirur. "This was a much-needed, long-awaited break," she laughs. "Everyone has been on their toes for the last two years, the coaches, the athletes, everyone. We all soaked it in, and relaxed. It was a bit of time to refresh, rejuvenate, and recharge.
"Besides," she says, "as far as the Olympic athletes are concerned, they are where they are because of their high levels of motivation. They have great drive within themselves."
In fact, Shirur isn't really worried about them. "The hunger to compete is at an all-time high," she says. If anything, she sees it as the ultimate, final test for the contingent. "The highly driven ones and the hungry ones are going to get hungrier and better after the lockdown, the ones that might not have been 100% into it, they are the ones that might slow down a little bit."
Mairaj Ahmad Khan isn't even thinking of slowing down. At the other end of the spectrum of experience from Bhaker, the skeet shooter (shotgun) is the oldest member of the contingent at 44.
"2020 was going to be my year," he sighs. But he chuckles as he says, "In my 25-year shooting career, I've never taken a break for more than 10-14 days. When Europeans stop shooting in the winter, our season starts in Asia. We have national championships, selection trials, training camps. We never stop. There is no break."
Initially, it got to him. "My wife kept telling me I had become a grumpy man. Dry training is very boring. You are literally just pushing a gun in front of a wall."
As time passed, though, helped by his own sports psychologist, he has accepted the positives.
"The body has a limit. You need recovery time. I was not recovering well all these years," he says. He used the break, and the rest days he could take, to his advantage by working on improving his physical state.
"Because there is no competition for a while, you can push yourself a little more," he says. "You can afford to get tired a little bit more. Normally when we train, we don't push ourselves physically too much, since the next day you will have soreness in your muscles. So I did quite a bit of bodyweight exercises with resistance bands, cardio on my treadmill. We have certain exercises required for posture, core strengthening, and cardio for heart rate.
"My resting heart is at 49 now! Which for my age is very good."
In June, he started training at a private range in Aligarh, before moving last week to Delhi and the recently reopened Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range. "On the first day, [shooting live] was like a new thing," he says. "My cheeks were hurting; my shoulder was hurting from the recoil, the movement of the gun was not controlled. Three months, the body changes."
It is slowly getting back to normal, though. He is shooting 250 rounds of ammunition a day, down from his regular 750 and planned peak of 1,500 ahead of the Olympics. He trains just four days a week, keeping aside three for rest and physical fitness. "There's no point burning yourself out in the off-season, is there?" he asks, rhetorically.
At the moment, he says, he's concentrating purely on his technique. Honing it, ironing out the flaws, perfecting it.
It's a point Shirur drives home. "[The Olympic probables] can go back to the basics, work on certain elements that they had been putting off, but wanting to do," she says. When you are going well, you are often loath to change anything at all, even if you know it's wrong, for fear of upsetting momentum, form. Now, that fear has been taken away.
"You can do this with basic exercises, wall-holding and SCATT (a form of virtual training). For example, even if you are not shooting live you can track and correct the movement of the guns on SCATT."
Shirur acknowledges that even for the top shooters, it will take a month or two for them to regain somewhere near their top form. Mairaj's experience suggests the same. Besides, as Bhaker says, you can only truly judge the levels everyone is at once camps and competitions restart.
This remains the biggest concern: when will competition restart? While the NRAI has scheduled a national camp at the Dr Karni Singh range in Delhi and have called up 34 probables, what will happen to the momentum these shooters were carrying into 2020? Will a lack of international competition blunt their edge?
The answer to that, though, might lie in a comment made by Shirur a few months earlier when a part of the team had travelled down to the Inspire Institute of Sport near Bengaluru for a few personalised sessions.
"Sometimes, the competitions within our camps are tougher than anything they compete in internationally. The quality is that high. The competitiveness is that high. Each day, these boys and girls want to go out there and outperform their peers. And to do that they have to be at their very best, day-in, day-out."
That they are starved of action is just going to spur them on. As Mairaj says, "Shooting is like food, you'll enjoy it best when you're hungry."
Three-time Olympic champion Nicco Campriani once described shooting as a journey of self-discovery. "If meditation were a sport, it would be shooting," he said. Shirur agrees wholeheartedly. This experience, this period of introspection, she is convinced, will help the shooters connect better with their own selves, become more complete athletes.
At the end of it all, "I'm scared they will come out better than they were before," she laughs.