For at least a few top Indian shooters, the conventional wisdom that improved physical fitness helps sportspersons perform better has been turned on its head in recent days. Scores at the ongoing World Cup in New Delhi have inexplicably dipped even as shooters have gotten stronger. Rather than any sudden loss of ability, the reason is the fact that, ironically, their equipment had originally been optimised for their less svelte, pre-fitness physiques.
Take for instance Apurvi Chandela, whose campaign at the 2021 World Cup ended not with the bang of her rifle making a shot, but in silence. On Sunday, taking what was to be her final shot in the bronze-medal match of the women's team event against Poland, the 29-year-old silently fidgeted on the range, seemingly unwilling to squeeze the trigger even as the 15-second time limit ran out.
The no-shot raised eyebrows coming as it did from Chandela -- once World No. 1, who, on the back of two World Cup gold medals in 2019, was considered one of the brightest prospects for Indian shooting in the Tokyo Olympics. In recent days, though, Chandela's scores have been slipping. At the World Cup, she failed to make the final after shooting 622.8 in qualifying -- a whopping 5.6 points outside the final eight . She'd shot similar scores of 625.9, 624.5, 621.3 and 623.1 in the selection trials in January and February -- well shy of the impressive 629.65 she was averaging at the start of 2020.
National coaches don't think the loss of form suggests a deeper crisis. "It's not really a shooting issue. It's a problem with her equipment," says Deepali Deshpande.
A bit of shooting 101 first. Before an athlete takes a shot, they brace their body, making it as still as they can. To make things easier, shooters wear a specialised, weighted shooting jacket and trousers made of a thick, stiffened canvas. "These kits are meant to support the weight of both the shooter and the rifle and distribute it evenly on your body. If your kit is a little loose or if it doesn't have strong support, then you have to work harder to stay perfectly still," says Chandela's personal coach Rakesh Manpat.
When they take a shot, says Manpat, shooters are trained to wait for the moment the stiffness of the kit supplements their own stillness. The no-shot happened because Chandela, at the most inopportune time possible, couldn't find that moment where her jacket was perfectly taut. "You don't want to pull the trigger until you find the right moment when you feel the jacket supporting you, " says Manpat.
The problem of equipment failure itself, though, cropped up, coincidentally, when Chandela was getting into in the best shape of her life. Going into India's nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chandela decided she wanted to work on her fitness, and in particular, treat a niggle in her foot that had caused her to shoot in pain for the previous three years. Although it wasn't her target, over three months, she had trimmed seven kilograms off the 57 kg she weighed at the start of her fitness journey.
Chandela wasn't the only shooter to have made the most of the lockdown in getting fitter. Divyansh Panwar, the 20-year-old who had won an Olympic quota in the 10m rifle event, had lost two kilograms after a strict yoga-based regime. Pistol quota winner, Abhishek Verma, had shaved nine kilograms off his frame. Angad Vir Bajwa, who won an Olympic quota in the skeet shooting, says he reduced the percentage of fat in his body from 14 percent to a lean 12 percent.
Improved fitness is usually a positive. "The reduced weight Apurvi was carrying on her feet meant she was finally shooting pain-free. With improved fitness, you have more endurance. Because you are taking fewer breaks between shots, you can maintain your rhythm for longer," says Manpat.
But there was a tradeoff. A shooter's body can serve at times as a resting spot or even a sighting aid. Consider the shooter's arms, says Manpat. "The left elbow comes to rest just a little above your hip region. If you lose a bit of weight there, it means you have a little less support that you'd normally be used to," says Manpat.
It's a similar situation for Bajwa. "Because I lost body fat, my face got slimmer. Usually, you rest the cheekpiece on the stock of your gun on the side of your face when you aim. Your eyeline follows the line of the stock and now that's changed because the cheekpiece isn't snug any more. A 1mm difference of where the stock rests on the side of your face means the shot is some three feet away from where the target is," says Bajwa.
The muscle Bajwa added around his torso also made a difference. "That muscle changed the shape of the shoulder pocket where I placed my gun stock. So if your chest grows a little bigger, then again your gun isn't sitting where it usually does. A gun is heavy, you need muscles to be able to lift it for all the shots you fire in the range but there has to be a balance, " says Bajwa.
There were more challenges, "Fitness is usually a good thing in sports. But in shooting, you have to pay attention to your equipment as much as your fitness. Equipment might be an external agent but it's a crucial variable in performance," says Manpat.
For Indian rifle shooters, changes in body shape meant shooting jackets and trousers had to be made out once again, to skinnier dimensions. Old jackets that were now suddenly more loose couldn't provide the same sort of support and stiffness that they once would have.
This wouldn't have been a problem on its own. Panwar, who uses kit made by an Indian brand, got himself fitted out with a new set of jacket and trousers that's worked perfectly for him at the World Cup. Chandela, though, is using a jacket manufactured by the South Korean Marksman brand, which proved near-impossible to replace. "For a long time, they weren't even responding to our mails because supply chains have been affected by the Covid situation," says Deshpande.
Although Chandela tried shooting with a jacket from a different company, she's not found the same sort of success. That's because the choice of shooting jacket and trousers is a very personal choice. "Every jacket is almost unique. The feel might vary even between batches from the same company. So it's not easy to adjust quickly between different types. In air rifle, your equipment plays a very important role. You rely a lot on your body and equipment and the relationship between the two. It's almost an extension of your body. It's not something you can just swap with your colleague," says Manpat.
Chandela shot in an unfamiliar jacket in the trials and at the New Delhi World Cup. Just as her scores have slumped, so have those for Bajwa. Just as Chandela needed a very specific shooting jacket, the 25-year-old Bajwa needed a rifle stock that would fit flush with his current facial and body structure. For that he needs to travel to Italy, which has been impossible so far. Ahead of the New Delhi World Cup, Bajwa was clear that he had little chance in the competition and that he was holding out hope to be able to travel to Italy and get the required changes on his gun. Although he holds the World Record in qualifying -- a perfect 125/125 -- Bajwa recorded, by his standards, a sub-par total of 117 and failed to make the finals.
Bajwa is relatively secure in his place going to the Olympics. Gurjoat Khangura, who had made the skeet finals, insisted he doesn't consider himself in contention for his compatriot's Olympic spot since he hadn't won the quota to begin with.
"Fitness is usually a good thing in sports. But in shooting, you have to pay attention to your equipment as much as your fitness. Equipment might be an external agent but it's a crucial variable in performance." Apurvi Chandela's coach Rakesh Manpat
It's different, though, for Chandela, who has to stay ahead of multiple young shooters who would eagerly grab the quota she had won via her silver medal in the 2018 World Championships. The dithering of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) on the matter of confirming her Olympic quota is unlikely to help her confidence.
What helps Chandela is that her coaches back her completely. Deshpande vouches for her pedigree, her recent low scores notwithstanding. "It's nothing to do with her shooting technique. It's entirely a kit issue," she says. While her loss of form might be concerning to outsiders, Deshpande reckons Chandela herself is not panicking. "She's very calm mentally. She knows what the problem is and what the solution is too. Once she gets her kit, it'll be sorted in this month entirely. We have seen it happen before and we know exactly how much time it will take," says Deshpande.
Good news might be just around the corner. Manpat says Chandela received her new kit from South Korea a couple of days ago. He, too, is confident of Chandela's ability to bounce back. He considers the disastrous no-shot a sign of mental strength rather than fragility. "I'm proud she didn't pull the trigger out of desperation when every instinct would have told her to squeeze and hope for the best. Under stress, she chose not to compromise on her technique. In a few weeks, she's going to have the advantage of wearing the right kit along with her improved physical conditioning. We are fine taking these small failures now rather than where it could actually matter," he says.