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India find silver lining in Vijayveer Sidhu after missing gold, possible Olympic spot

Sanket Wankhade/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In the Indian sport shooting fraternity, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Vijayveer Sidhu, apart from his obvious skill in the rapid fire pistol event, was that he was usually shooting alongside, and very often mistaken for, his identical twin brother Udhayveer. "It used to be a sort of attraction to people but it's never been of help. In fact, it's usually been a disadvantage. One time when we were younger, my brother went and hit a classmate. In retaliation, that guy hit me instead," says Vijayveer.

The likeness does not end there. Both Vijayveer and Udhayveer are talented juniors with a gold medal each in the Junior World Cup. Following Vijayveer's exploits on Saturday, though, there will be less confusion between the two. He now has a distinct identity -- World Cup medallist.

Competing in the men's 25m rapid-fire event at the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi, Vijayveer nearly pulled off a major upset in his first senior international tournament. He came back from a shot down to tie 2016 Rio Olympian Peeter Olesk in the very last series, and forced a shoot-off for the gold medal position -- a gold that very likely came with a spot in the Tokyo Olympics -- before eventually taking second place.

At the start of the final, not many eyes would have been on Vijayveer. Of the three Indians in the final, at least going by past records, he was considered the least likely to win the gold and the Olympic berth. And that's what all the discussion over this past week had been about in this event, in which India had won an Olympic silver back in 2012 through Vijay Kumar.

Although there are no Olympic quotas on offer at this World Cup, it offered a possible route -- via the ranking quota -- for shooters to make it to the Olympics. Under the rule, a single Olympic spot would be offered to the highest-ranked shooter from a country that hadn't yet won an Olympic quota in that particular event. A gold medal in the World Cup would offer the victor a nearly-insurmountable boost of 1000 ranking points. With one shooter in the six-man final of the 25m pistol event having already earned a quota, the remaining five shooters were in a straight contest with each other. If an Indian was to boost their Olympic hopes, they had to finish ahead of Estonia's Olesk and Poland's Oskar Miliwek.

Anish Bhanwala -- a year younger to Vijayveer, but more decorated -- was thought to be the one with the strongest hope. The 18-year-old is a four-time Junior World Cup winner, a two-time Junior World Champion, and the youngest gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games. Heading to the World Cup, he was the highest-ranked shooter -- at World No. 12 -- who had not yet won an Olympic quota. The other Indian was two-time Asian medallist Gurpreet Singh, who was quickly brought back to compete in the tournament after testing positive but subsequently negative in a COVID-19 test, was ranked 54th. In contrast, Vijayveer had no ranking since he hadn't ever competed in a senior international event prior to the New Delhi World Cup.

It was Vijayveer, though, who competed like a seasoned professional.

Making the final as the last qualifier, he had come prepared for the conditions, packing in a diffusing filter in his lens kit in anticipation for the glare of the afternoon conditions. Standing in the first lane, thereby being the first to shoot the series of five shots on five targets, helped him. He was always the shooter setting the pace in the contest. What also turned out to be a boon was the fact that, at such a long shot, Vijayveer could put no real pressure on himself. In an event where shooters have to aim at five separate targets -- with a score of 9.7 or higher counting as a hit -- in the space of four seconds, a momentary lapse of concentration could be lead to elimination.

"I just came here to do my best. I wasn't thinking about the quota. I was free. I've no idea how I'd shoot keeping the quota in mind because that's not how I shoot," he said later.

It was quite different for the rest. "Of course I was thinking about it. That's the entire reason I came to Delhi," eventual winner Olesk said.

Olesk, a member of the Estonian armed forces, was able to hold his nerve the longest, leading all the way from the first series. Gurpreet was the first to crack, followed by Bhanwala. Marko Carillo of Peru, who will be competing in his second Olympics in Tokyo, was the next to falter, shooting just a single target in the sixth series -- a result that dropped him from bronze-medal position. Tied for second place, Vijayveer moved clear over Miliwek with a near-perfect series of four to the latter's three.

Vijayveer was still one shot behind Olesk in the start of the final series but shot a near-clinical four. Olesk could only respond with three. The gold medal and a possible Olympic quota was almost in hand at this point. It is possible it clouded a previously clear mind, for in the shoot-off that followed, Vijayweer shot his worst series of the competition -- hitting just one target.

There was no let-off from Olesk, who hit another four to win the event. The Estonian was almost relieved at the end and gracious in victory. "He [Vijayveer] shot very well. It's always harder to shoot second because there's always pressure when you are chasing a score and he put a lot of pressure on me before the shoot-off. When it came to the shoot-off, I just got lucky," he said.

Through his performance in New Delhi, Vijayveer has risen to seventh in the World Rankings. While Olesk -- who's now risen to third in the world rankings -- will be the favourite to claim the ranking quota, there's a mathematical chance that the Indian might still make the cut. With a quota still to be awarded in the European Championships in May, a gold medal for Olesk in that competition would mean the ranking quota would pass to Vijayveer.

It's not a possibility Sidhu is contemplating. He is not disappointed at falling in the shoot-off, treating it as an experience that will help him grow as a shooter. "Every competition helps you get experience. This was my first senior world Cup and the first time I played a World Cup final. I learned a few things. I got I to learn how to shoot a final, I got to compete in a shoot-off and I got to win a medal. It's rare that I got to experience all three things," he says. "I have a very long journey, a long road ahead. There's no disappointment," he says.