Impending Tokyo selection brings added pressure for Indian shooters at New Delhi World Cup

Left to right: India's Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju poses with Rahi Sarnobat, Chinki Yadav and Manu Bhaker on the podium after the women's 25m pistol final. PRAKASH SINGH/AFP via Getty Images

A steady body and a calm mind are a bit of an aid in precision shooting. Dry hands help too. Chinki Yadav will admit she had none of those prerequisites when she showed up for the final of the women's 25m pistol event at the ISSF World Cup.

"I was sweating a lot and there was a lot of vibration in my body as well. There was a lot of pressure," she said.

Yadav could speak about this with a smile later. That was after the 23-year-old had pipped the field in New Delhi -- beating far more fancied teammates in Asian Games champion Rahi Sarnobat, nine-time World Cup winner Manu Bhaker, and even Olympic bronze medallist Heidi Diethelm -- to win her first ever World Cup gold. In those fumbling last few minutes just before her event, though, she had to find a way to forget everything and focus on the moment.

"Just focus on your breathing," she told herself.

It's easy to think of elite shooters as emotionless athletes with rock-steady hands. The reality is different. When he woke up on Wednesday morning, Aishwary Pratap Tomar felt a wave of nausea sweep over him. "I'm getting a vomiting sensation," he told national coach Suma Shirur. The 20-year-old wasn't sick. That was just how his pre-match nerves manifested themselves on the day of his final in the 50m rifle 3 positions event.

"I was feeling nervous, but this is a part of competition. There's always pressure, no matter what you do," he would say later.

Shirur says pressure is often a good sign, as it helps athletes focus. It's also inevitable, as Tomar, who ended up winning his event, says. But for some Indian shooters, the pressure they are under is more than they'd normally expect competing in a World Cup.

"Pressure comes in every competition. But there's more of it when we are anticipating something or when we are fighting a lot for something," says Yadav.

For Yadav, it is a place in the Indian squad for the Tokyo Olympics. Although she won a quota for India in the women's 25m pistol event (after reaching the final of the Asian Championships in 2019), there was no certainty over her selection. The quota belongs to the country and the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) had already drafted an elaborate policy to determine selection -- taking into consideration recent scores but also performances in major events.

There were all sorts of reasons working against Yadav -- not all easily dismissed. She was too young. Her scores weren't the best in the country. She was too inexperienced at the highest level and didn't have the medals there either.

Her rise had been meteoric. She'd gone from picking up a pistol in the MP Sports Complex in Bhopal (where her father worked as an electrician), to the brink of Olympic qualification in seven years. But there was another shooter whose star had risen even faster.

There certainly was a case to be made for Manu Bhaker to compete in the 25m event in Tokyo. Bhaker, 19, is four years younger than Yadav, but far more accomplished. All of Yadav's World Cup medals came in the junior version of the tournament, and none of those in an individual capacity. Bhaker has nine gold medals in World Cups, albeit all in the 10m pistol event. Although she'd never medalled in 25m pistol, Bhaker's scores in the qualifying rounds -- which determine who makes the final -- were stronger. In the four selection trials the NRAI conducted over January and February this year, Bhaker had averaged 586 to Yadav's 583.50. The former would almost certainly find a place in an Olympic final while the latter would likely finish just outside the final eight.

With the NRAI selection committee deciding on the Olympic squad in the week after the New Delhi World Cup, it's no surprise shooters see the World Cup as the final chance to make an impression.

Many shooters, even experienced ones like Anjum Moudgil, are feeling that added pressure. Although she had won the Olympic quota in the women's 10m air rifle event at the 2018 World Championships, Moudgil had seen her scores bettered by others in recent days. Her relief on making the final after recording an impressive 629.1 in the qualifying round of her event in New Delhi was palpable. "I do feel the pressure off my back," she had said then.

Yadav admitted on Wednesday that the thought of impending Olympic selection had often crept into her mind. "Sometimes when I think about it I get under pressure but I also accept that whatever happens, I'm going to accept it," she says.

Whatever pressure Yadav had been under in recent times, it's clear she's found a way to handle it over the last couple of days -- better at least than her nearest rivals. She finished second in qualifying with a score of 580, ahead of Bhaker's 576 -- the lowest she's scored this year. In the final it was once again Yadav who finished ahead, leading all the way from the first shot.

In another range, Tejaswini Sawant -- who's also fighting to claim a quota in the 50m rifle 3 positions event that she won in Doha along with Yadav -- explains what might have happened. "Once you get to the (firing) lane, the pressure disappears. Because the mind can only focus on one thing at a time. Aligning, triggering takes all your focus," she says.

It wasn't that Yadav didn't have to push out unwelcome thoughts. "In every microsecond, you have a thousand thoughts that go through your head. I just had to find a way to forget about them. I find a way to focus on firing my series," she says.

Knowing she's done all she could to put her case forward, perhaps the pressure is finally off Yadav too. "I just knew I had to do my best. Whatever happens we have to accept it and move on," she says.