Friday morning for the Olympic core group of Indian shooters and coaches began with an early zoom call. Only this time, unlike the raft of planned meetings in the past seven months from the living rooms and bedrooms of their respective homes, they were sharing a wall.
Close to 30 shooters and coaches have congregated at the Taj Vivanta in Surajkund, Faridabad for a two-month long camp organized by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) and Sports Authority of India (SAI), with the mandatory stipulation of a week's quarantine on arrival. Pre-plated meals are being served to their rooms, along with disposable garbage bags, which they then leave outside their doors for pick-up.
The absentees from the camp include rifle shooters Elavanil Valarivan, Gaayathri N, skeet shooter Angad Singh Bajwa, Mairaj Ahmed Khan and foreign coach Ennio Falcao.
Those living within NCR have the option of isolating themselves at home or having a room to themselves at the hotel, much like the outstation shooters and coaches who reached on Friday. The latter option is one that rifle shooter Deepak Kumar readily took.
A junior warrant officer in the Air force living in Delhi, Deepak decided that isolating himself at home was only going to throw his family an extra challenge. "Also, this way it's easier to focus, there are fewer things on my mind and I get a chance to reconnect with my early life of spiritual calm." The monk-like talk is no surprise. Deepak, who won an Olympic quota with an Asian Championship bronze last year, spent ten years of his childhood away from his parents at a gurukul in Poundha, Dehradun.
The 32 year-old gamely set up an electronic target at home and trained through the first few months of the lockdown. Once the Karni Singh range (where the camp is being held) opened up in July, he had a much-improved choice of training location.
For someone else, like 2018 Asian Games bronze medalist Abhishek Verma, who is living out his one-week isolation period at his rented home in Gurugram, this is a good time to create a diligent log of his scores from major events in the past two years. "It will allow me to have a ready reckoner of measurable performance numbers and understand how much work is needed. At least I'll be prepared going into the camp next week." The camp, which according to SAI is being conducted at a total cost of INR 1.43 crore ($194,706), was postponed twice earlier.
To play by isolation rules, Verma and the two junior shooters he shares his living space with, stockpiled groceries at the start of the week. A qualified lawyer who recently received his provisional enrolment certificate from the Bar Council of Punjab & Haryana, Verma has been training since August at a range built in a Gurugram mall by one of his friends. This after five months of training at an ad-hoc outdoor set-up in his Chandigarh home.
"Now that I'm confined to home, I'm largely doing dry holding drills that'll help in muscle memory," he says, "Whenever I find time outside shooting, I go over legal cases which are in the news to understand how they are being argued or handled." Currently he's poring over actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death and the Hathras rape and killing cases, reserving his conclusions on both until after he's read them threadbare.
"Once proper training begins, I may not want or be able to divide my attention since shooting is my first priority," says Verma, "I've been anxiously waiting all these months for news of a camp. It's such a relief to finally see it take place."
The idea of a national camp, however, doesn't cut much ice with someone like Bajwa, who is habituated to the rhythm of his home range in Dera Bassi, near Chandigarh. Current women's rifle shooter world No 1 Valarivan, who lives in Ahmedabad, too has excused herself from the gathering of elite shooters because of her ongoing university exams.
Knowing her prodigious student, it doesn't worry national rifle coach Deepali Deshpande too much. The fantasy-like oddity she is grappling with at the moment though, is having a sprawling room to herself at a five-star hotel for the next two months. Also, one week of near-zero human interaction brings with it the prospect of logging onto a streaming service she subscribed to seven months ago, for the first time.
"In my shooting days, during camps at Nehru stadium, it used to be six of us in a room," Deshpande chortles, "so this is like floating in a dream."
Deshpande traveled from Mumbai to Delhi with two masks taped to her face for seven hours, and sighs at the callous masks-hanging-under-chin and distracted thermal scanning encounters she had with security staff at the airports. "All of us here at the camp," she says, "have to make sure we don't venture outside this one week. It's taken a lot of effort to make this camp happen, so we don't want anything to derail it. A majority of the core group shooters are quite young, so it's important we sometimes keep tabs."
It's here that her tested hacks as former junior national coach kick in. The 2002 Asian Games silver medalist along with a fellow coach staying at the hotel plan to take turns in playing bad cop over the week. "Calling shooters' room phones is an idea," says Deshpande, "That way we know they're indoors. After seven years as junior coach, these tricks sort of come naturally."