It was at a press conference of the Indian rifle and pistol team that Tejaswini Sawant first realised it -- when a call had gone out to identify the senior-most member of the relatively young team (median age, 27). "I genuinely thought Sanjeev [Rajput, 39] was the senior-most. That's the moment it first struck me. I'm the oldest one here!" she says.
Sawant is 41. To put that in perspective, she first started shooting before three of her Tokyo teammates were born.
Age isn't as much a limiting factor in shooting as it is in other sports. Rajmond Debevec, for instance, won a bronze at the 2012 Olympics when he was 49. But there's still something remarkable about Sawant. While Rajput will be competing in his third Games, Sawant will be making her Olympic debut - becoming the oldest Indian to do so.
The 50m 3 positions shooter debuted in 2004, aged 23. She had been confident of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics. "I was in really good form and shooting some really high scores back then." She just couldn't seal a spot.
"At one time, the quota was at 396 and I scored a 395. Other times, although I shot a 396, I was tied for ninth place and I missed out on the finals because I had fewer inner tens," she recalls. "At that time, I was really disappointed, which was normal because I'd come so close. But my colleagues and coaches would always say that I'd make it eventually. I felt that way too," she says.
It would take her nearly a decade and a half to finally 'make it'.
It wasn't as if she wasn't winning medals elsewhere. In 2009, she had won her first World Cup medal -- a bronze in the 50m prone event in Munich. A year later, she won two silvers at the Commonwealth Games and also became the first Indian female shooter to win a gold at the World Championships with a world record-equalling score of 597/600 in that same event.
Yet, Olympic qualification would elude her. "Something would always affect my preparations," she says. "Big tournaments like the Olympics come once every four years. But at each instance [in the last decade], something came up." Family issues, her mother being unwell... "I missed a lot of tournaments"
"Even when I had to take a step back, though, I never thought I'd give up. I'm a believer in destiny. The only thing you can do is work hard. Even if the reward doesn't come right away, or after a year or even a decade, eventually your hard work will have some merit. I never got depressed or thought of leaving," she says.
What helped perhaps, she says, is that the Olympics never really had an emotional hold over her. "I started shooting back in 1999 when I was part of the NCC. At that time, I didn't have that much idea of the Olympics or even that I could make a career out of sport. For me, shooting was something that I did because I enjoyed it," she says.
She is, though, still curious to see what she has missed out on all these years. "I just want to experience what Olympic pressure is about. I've always got the impression that it's this massive burden. I want to know why that's the case. Just how big it is. In terms of numbers, there is a lot more competition at the World Championships. I thought the pressure at the 2010 CWG was the most I've faced, but clearly the Olympics must take that pressure to another level," she says.
"Even when I had to take a step back (from shooting), I never thought I'd give up. I'm a believer in destiny. The only thing you can do is work hard." Tejaswini Sawant
Sawant admits she has been lucky that she was able to pursue her career as long as she had -- a luxury not many women of her generation could enjoy. "A lot of the girls who once shot with me have left the sport. Many of them who started a few years after I did tell me they face a lot of pressure to get married and they feel they have no choice but to quit the sport," she says. But Sawant's husband, Sameer, encouraged her to pursue her career. "I actually think my performance on the shooting range has improved after marriage. My husband is sometimes even more invested in my sport than me," she laughs. "Mentally, that makes you feel lighter."
She believes it's that calm, and her experience, that still gives her an edge. "When a new shooter comes, they aren't so accustomed to handling match pressure. I think it is a little easier for me because I've gone through nearly every possible scenario in real life. If I find myself confronting physical pressure, I immediately know how to manage it. If something isn't working, I know immediately how to find an alternative. The ability of making decisions quickly is something that comes with experience," she says.
For many shooters, Sawant is a bit of a role model. "Especially after the 2018 CWG (where she won gold in the 50m 3P), a lot of younger shooters told me how important it was that I did well." Some of them, government employees through the sport, who had gone through periods of low performance and were being pressured to quit shooting, would use her name 'as an example that it's possible to find success even if they got older'.
Sawant, however, doesn't shoot because there are expectations from her or because she's an inspiration. She does it because she enjoys the constant challenge she finds in it. This is why, she says, it doesn't entirely matter how she does in Tokyo.
"I'd be lying if I say I didn't want to do well. But I don't plan on quitting the sport even if things don't go my way. I'll look forward to competing at the next Olympics. It's been 30 years since I started shooting and I still feel there is so much to learn. I'm always chasing that little bit of improvement. I still find certain things hard. I keep wondering where more I could learn, what more could I do. One lifetime isn't enough," she says.