Seasoned Rahi Sarnobat embraces pain, pressure to underline her USP ahead of Tokyo

Rahi Sarnobat in action in the 25m pistol individual final, where she won silver, at the New Delhi World Cup. Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Few things seem to trouble Rahi Sarnobat. Not injury, not the high pressure of a World Cup final and not even the possibility of becoming a two-time Olympian.

As far as injuries go, an infected foot that's just undergone surgery isn't anywhere near the worst pistol shooter Sarnobat has dealt with. "Oh, it's nothing," she said brightly on Thursday evening, on her way out of the final at New Delhi's Karni Singh shooting complex.

She's in flip flops, still limping a bit, gingerly trying to avoid putting any weight on her left limb.

Unless you knew about it before, you'd never have guessed anything was wrong with Sarnobat just a few minutes before, when she stood on the firing line.

It's a gold medal match in the women's 25m pistol team event. The Polish opponents are performing better than expected. Sarnobat's two younger compatriots are not looking all that secure. The restrictive, flat-soled pistol shoes are biting painfully into the still-healing wound on her left heel.

But in the midst of it all, Sarnobat almost looks like she is shooting a practice session. When things get tough, it's good to have the 27-year-old from Kolhapur on your side.

Sarnobat's steadiness would put a rock to shame. On Wednesday, she shot a perfect-five series almost for fun. She's recorded a perfect-five in six of the 12 series in the final. The next best is India's Chinki Yadav, who scored one. When India win gold, it's significantly due to Sarnobat, who's shot an extremely high-level 53 out of 60 targets.

Injury? What injury?

"I've gone through this all before," she says nonchalantly. Back in 2015, Sarnobat had suffered a freak injury that fractured multiple bones in her right elbow and kept her out of the shooting range for over a year while undergoing rehab.

"After that, this is nothing," she says of her foot, which needed to be cut open and drained of pus just a couple of weeks back after an unattended splinter ended up getting infected.

"I love being in that pressure where I'm competing directly with the best. It gets a lot easier to think about. You either hit the target or you don't. There's no in between." Rahi Sarnobat

While the surgery was minimally invasive, it still meant that Sarnobat wasn't training anywhere as intensely as she would have liked to before the tournament. "I was still shooting in my chappals five or six days ago. That's not great but I have the experience now that I can manage," she says.

She did more than 'manage' at the World Cup. While the qualifying stage isn't her strong suit, she finished on top of the the women's 25m pistol event with a score of 581, beating both her Indian compatriots. And although she finished second behind Yadav in the final, she reaffirmed her credentials in that stage with her steely performance in the women's team event.

Sarnobat hasn't always been the most high-profile exponent of her event. It was the 23-year-old Yadav, who enjoyed the spotlight a day ago, when she won her first World Cup gold. Then there is of course 19-year-old Manu Bhaker, who has seven World Cup golds of her own. In the past, there was 2016 Rio Olympian Heena Sidhu.

But if there's someone you'd want shooting for you in a pressure situation, it's probably the Asian Games gold medallist Sarnobat, who thrives when palms get sweaty, throats dry out and nerves start getting jangly.

"For me that's when the competition becomes easy or at least that's when I start to enjoy it more. I love being in that pressure where I'm competing directly with the best," she says. The all-or-nothing mindset of the final appeals to her. "It gets a lot easier to think about. You either hit the target or you don't. There's no in-between. You can be aggressive in the final because even if you miss the target entirely, it's just one miss. If you miss the target in qualifying, you are down 10 points," she says.

Having finished the World Cup with a win, Sarnobat is already looking to the next big event -- the Tokyo Olympics. While the squad won't be named until next week, and there are rumours floating on whether shooters will see their quota go to someone else, Sarnobat, who won an Olympic quota at the 2019 World Cup in Munich, is quietly confident. She's even more confident that she'll be able to take whatever is dished out in Tokyo. "I know that I have a lot to improve in terms of my qualifying scores. I'm on my toes. I'm not relaxed at all," she says.

Should she travel, she'll become a two-time Olympian, having already competed once before in 2012. She'd also be among pistol and rifle shooters who have won a quota for Tokyo. She's looking forward to carrying a different mindset when she does go, compared to the last time. "The last time I was so much younger. I was just happy being there. I wasn't even thinking I had a chance to medal. I was just this 19-year-old walking into the dining room and seeing Usain Bolt. I was in the same team as Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang and I was just so happy I was competing along with them."

This time, Sarnobat is the seasoned shooter in a squad with a host of youngsters. Among those who have won quotas, she's one of only three who have competed at the Olympics before. "There was this aura that shooters like Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang had. They were the senior-most. Now I am that person. I'm one of the most experienced shooters in the team. I have that experience. I'll be able to manage better this time," she says.