Over the next ten weeks, Abhishek Verma will be leaning on technology -- GoPro, live-streaming, video calls -- to work as a filler for his coach's physical absence. Rahi Sarnobat vouches to have cracked a way to train by herself, while Saurabh Chaudhary may want to take his training slow in Croatia.
The Indian Olympic shooting squad, widely considered to be the strongest ever to represent the country at a Games, left from New Delhi on Tuesday sans three pistol coaches and will be camping in the central European country until the Tokyo Games. But the next two-odd months will test their skills in every manner: Away from home and family, and for some of them, new coaches and new equations to work on.
Manu Bhaker, among India's brightest Olympic medal prospects, will be competing in the 10m air pistol, mixed team and 25m pistol events at the Games. Manu has long been mentored by national junior shooting coach Jaspal Rana. They have since, split ways. According to her father, Ram Kishen Bhaker, she doesn't have a dedicated coach presently. "Manu has never had a fixed coach. So it doesn't really affect her that three coaches have pulled out of the trip," he says.
However, ESPN understands that NRAI has appointed Ronak Pandit as her coach in April this year. The two, however, are yet to begin working together in earnest.
Pandit, who opted out of the Indian shooting squad's Croatia training-and-competition trip, is considering joining the side a few weeks from now.
Pandit's refusal to travel overseas presently, he explains, was unavoidable since immediate family members have been grappling with the virus. Pandit's mother contracted COVID-19 roughly a month ago, while his brother tested positive last week. "My mother has recovered," he told ESPN. "My father is elderly so I have to make sure he is okay. If my brother is alright soon enough and the situation at home is under control, I'd be okay to travel to Croatia in a couple of weeks from now. Of course, it would be subject to NRAI's clearance."
In addition to Pandit, fellow pistol coaches Rana and Samaresh Jung too decided against travelling to Croatia with the team. While Jung works with Saurabh Chaudhary and occasionally assists Rahi Sarnobat, Rana recently took Abhishek Verma under his wing.
In a recent Zoom interaction with journalists facilitated by SAI, 10m air pistol shooter Verma spoke of putting his GoPro camera to inventive use and live-streaming his training sessions in Zagreb for the benefit of coach Rana, who is based in Mussoorie. Verma admits it's not the ideal way to prepare for his first Olympics, now little over two months away.
"The time from now until the Games is about making the finer adjustments," he says. "It's obviously very important to have a coach beside you. Since he [Rana] has known me for a while it's easier for him to spot errors right away and find ways to fix them." A lawyer by qualification, the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist who picked up shooting as a hobby at the age of 27, finds himself in the Olympic squad four years later. He hasn't, however, been able to log regular hours in training since the World Cup in New Delhi this year. For the trip, he has packed in his dumbbells, gym gear, two freshly serviced pistols along with an itch to improve his timing. Before the lockdown last year, Verma would typically complete his regulation 60 shots within 40-50 minutes. The months away from competition and systematic training have seen the time he takes to fire 60 shots now spill to an hour and ten minutes. He's working on a fix.
In contrast to Verma's tech-driven support plan, Rahi prefers being left alone. The 25m pistol shooter trained for three years under former world champion Munkhbayar Dorjsuren, a Mongolian who moved to Germany and won an Olympic bronze in 2008. Under her tutelage, Rahi became the first Indian female shooter to win an Asian Games gold in 2018. Dorjsuren's contract ran out last year and since then Rahi has largely been left to her own devices, occasionally seeking out Jung for advice. "For me, it's important to have someone to talk to and discuss," she says during a chat set up by SAI. "Apart from that, I like to be on my own. Munkhbayar has prepared me very well."
This won't be Rahi's maiden Games. She was part of the London Olympics, nine years ago. Overwhelmed by the occasion, she had a forgettable finish. The 30-year-old has experience now and Jung is certain she will reach out to him in moments of crisis. He has, however, dispatched copious instructions for Rahi's teenage teammate Saurabh Chaudhary. Both Rahi and Chaudhary recently recovered from COVID-19. Chaudhary, counted among the world's most consistent pistol shooters, needs to allow his body to return to full recovery, says Jung.
Coach Ved Prakash Pilanaya, who is travelling with the team, will be assisting the 18-year-old in training. The Indian team will have two competition opportunities -- European Championships (May 20-June 6) and the combined ISSF World Cup (June 22-July 3). "Saurabh has to take it slow for a couple of weeks," says Jung. "The training has to be light and consistent so that his health isn't compromised. At times, he tends to over-train before competitions, so that's something he should avoid. Ved and Saurabh have traveled together for tournaments before, so I'm not too worried. He's in good hands. Saurabh has a calm head, composed mind and he's already shot in most major international competitions. With or without a coach, I think he'll do just fine."