She had a World Cup debut to remember - winning two gold medals and a silver - but Indian shooter Esha Singh crossed an item off her bucket list even before she'd stood on the podium. The 17-year-old idolises two-time Olympic medallist Anna Korakaki of Greece and got to meet and compete with her for the first time in Cairo "Esha is a huge fan of Anna Korakaki. So during the practice session before the competition, she was really excited to meet her," Esha's father Sachin Singh said.
Following Esha's pre-competition training with Korakaki, who won gold at the 2016 Olympics, the two shooters and their fathers got talking. "Anna's father doesn't speak very good English but we realised we had so much in common," he said. "Anna's father is also very involved in her shooting (Tasos Korakakis is the one who introduced her to the sport.) Like me he also travels with her whenever she competes."
There's another similarity. Both started shooting at a very early age and were seen as prodigies in their own right. While Esha, 17, has a long way to go to match Korakaki's accomplishments - the Greek shooter was 19 when she won a gold and a bronze at the Rio Olympics - she's got off to a strong start.
At the ISSF World Cup in Cairo, the 11th grade student from Hyderabad won two gold medals (in the 10m and 25m team events) as well as a silver in the 10m pistol individual event. In the latter event, she finished behind Korakaki but ahead of Bulgarian Antoaneta Kostadinova, who had won a silver at the Tokyo Olympics. "After that final she told Esha that she has a daughter who was as old as her but nowhere near as good as her," her father said.
It was perhaps inevitable that Esha would choose a path in sports although her father didn't expect it to be as a shooter. Sachin was a rally driver of some renown - racing for Suzuki and Mahindra in the Indian off-road scene. He also ran a sports goods store in Hyderabad. "I have a lot of friends who are national level shooters but I personally had very little knowledge of it. Even though I have a sports goods store, I've never sold anything connected to shooting. So while I always thought she would play some sport. I didn't think it would be shooting," he said.
Her interest in the sport was piqued though when one of Sachin's friends, a national level skeet shooter, took them to the Gachibowli range one Sunday for a picnic. "Maybe she just enjoyed the sound of the guns but she was very insistent that she wanted to become a shooter," he said. Esha was only 9 years old when she started shooting and unable to hold a rifle at that age, started with the pistol.
Although he wasn't sure whether she would persist with the sport, Sachin says he felt his daughter was on to something when she won the state junior and youth title just a year after picking up the pistol. "After that I decided I needed to support her a lot more. Since I have a background in sports, I knew what was needed for her."
Sachin also brought in a full-time physio for Esha. "At the age she was starting, everything is growing - from her bones to her muscles to even the retinas of her eyes. So I needed to ensure that she stayed injury free," he said.
My first Senior world cup Won silver for my country 🇮🇳🇮🇳🇮🇳tough day today!! With all Olympians by my side.@PMOIndia @ianuragthakur @DGSAI @Media_SAI @DirHR_iocl @ChairmanIOCL @OfficialNRAI pic.twitter.com/2CPpLfktj5
- Esha Singh (@singhesha10) March 1, 2022
Soon enough, Esha was making a name for herself in Indian shooting circles. At the 2018 national championships, just three years after she started the sport, the 13-year-old would become the youngest shooter to win a gold medal in the senior category, beating Commonwealth Gold medallists Heena Sidhu and Manu Bhaker in the 10m air pistol event.
As her progress continued, her family backed her to the hilt. Sachin retired from his rally career in 2017 while mother Srilatha would handle operations in the family store whenever the two would travel for competition or training. "Esha's pistols are not cheap. Her first pistol cost more than my bikes. When Esha showed a keen interest in shooting, we would travel to Pune for camps while her mother would manage our sports shop. Later, we also built her a small range at home. It was like operating a car garage for me after I left rallying two years ago," he added.
After consistently medalling at the juniors - Esha won a silver at the world juniors last year - her father believes it's time for her to start making a consistent mark at the senior level. She's begun well at the season-opening ISSF World Cup, but the expectations will only grow. There will be comparisons to another Indian shooting prodigy Manu Bhaker, who won her first World Cup gold when she was 16. Indeed Manu had beaten Esha in the final of the 10m pistol competition at last year's nationals. However since no selection trials could be conducted owing to Omicron wave earlier this year, Esha's higher score in qualification (582 to Manu's 576) meant that she was picked in India's World Cup squad.
In fact, a World Cup medal is no guarantee for future success or selection. Once regular competition resumes, there's no guarantee that Esha will even remain part of the Indian squad. Take the case of Shahzar Rizvi, who won the pistol gold and was world No 1 in 2018 but didn't make the Commonwealth or Asian Games squad that year and is currently far behind his compatriots on the pecking order.
Esha and her father are mindful of that. "There will obviously be a lot more pressure and expectations on her now that she's won these medals. But Esha isn't someone who takes a lot of pressure very easily. There are times when she gets flustered but she also recovers very quickly. She's achieved a lot already but we will take things one step at a time," he said.