After battling Covid-19, Rahi Sarnobat sees 'shade of hope' in Olympics

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

Rahi Sarnobat found herself trapped in an ethical conundrum.

The 25m pistol shooter had planned to get her first Covid-19 vaccine shot around the end of March. Following a request, the Maharashtra government had approved inoculation for the the state's Olympic-bound shooters. State-mate and 50m 3-position rifle shooter Tejaswini Sawant went ahead and got her first dose after the World Cup.

Sure, the 25m pistol shooter wanted to shield herself from the raging pandemic but she was also besieged by the morality of cutting the queue as a younger citizen while vast, more vulnerable populations in the country waited their turn. Three days ahead of her planned vaccination shot, the 30-year-old began experiencing a scratchy throat. Soon after, she tested positive. It wasn't exactly welcome news but it at least put her immediate dilemma to bed.

"Maybe nature heard me," Rahi, also the first Indian female shooter to win an Asian Games gold, tells ESPN. "I didn't have to make a decision anymore. The vaccine now opening up for everyone above 18 years from next month is a good thing."

It is understood that two more Indian shooters belonging to the Olympic squad -- Saurabh Chaudhary and Deepak Kumar -- tested positive following the World Cup.

The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) had, it is learnt, urged its top shooters to approach their respective state governments for vaccination. Olympic-bound Anjum Moudgil and Swapnil Kusale too received their shots from their respective employers, Punjab Police and Indian Railways.

For Rahi, it started with an itchy throat and unexplained fatigue a day after she returned home to Pune from the New Delhi World Cup. Initially she assumed it must have been an aftereffect of travelling and of being generally quite susceptible to the common cold. The more common symptoms of fever, loss of smell and taste surfaced only after she received her test result. She has served out her 14-day quarantine, resumed training a few days ago, and is remarkably cheery about the turn of events. "Perhaps it happened at a good time", she laughs. "I don't have any competitions just now and might really need these antibodies in the months ahead."

Pune, home to the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, is among the worst affected districts of the country. There's a night curfew and weekend lockdown in place in Maharashtra to encourage people to stay indoors. With the Olympics now under 100 days away, it is, however, not an option Rahi can take.

Every day she drives herself to the Balewadi range, barely 200 metres away from her home in the northwestern outskirts of the city. The range, out of bound for others currently, is operational only for Rahi, Tejaswini and para shooter Swaroop Unalkar, who are in preparatory mode for the Games. "We don't even run into each other, so it's practically us training in isolation. Given the virus situation, I don't want to venture out, but I have no choice if I want to train."

The Olympic squad, including Rahi, will fly out for close to a two-month-long competition-cum-training trip on May 9. The European Championship in Osijek, Croatia, will be their first stop, following which the team will stay back and train in the country. They will then head to the Baku World Cup and are expected to return to the country only by June-end. The lengthy trip is likely to have been charted to minimise frequent travel and allow the core group to train as a unit. Especially since their national camp in New Delhi was called off this week following the virus surge in the capital.

In the din of tireless training, the question of whether the Games will take place at all in light of more infectious virus strains gaining ground continues to plague athletes. News trickled in on Wednesday of Japan readying to declare a state of emergency -- their third since April last year -- in Tokyo, host city for the Olympics three months from now, and two other regions.

Rahi chooses not to look at the unfolding scenario through the narrow prism of ticking off a second Games appearance for herself.

"More than myself, I'm concerned about physical sports like track and field for instance," she says. "For them every year, every week, counts. They've been dreaming of it all their lives. For many others this could possibly be the last Games. In my sport, I know I perhaps have a better chance of lasting till the next Olympics."

Aside from finding sufficient time to complete a WADA e-learning course, mandatory for Olympic athletes and one she'd been putting off for a while over a packed schedule, Rahi stumbled upon a helpful takeaway from her Covid experience.

"My mother too contracted the virus around the same time that I did. When someone close to us is suddenly thrown into a vulnerable situation, we begin to see life in its entirety. We realise it's so much more than just the little goals we're chasing. From that whole Covid episode, I've gained perspective. If I'm told tomorrow that the Olympics won't happen, it will sadden me for sure, but it won't crush me. I think the world needs the Games, more than us athletes. In all the misery around us, the Olympics could be a shade of hope."