Pistol shooter Rahi Sarnobat: Old notes to find fresh zing

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Rahi Sarnobat can effortlessly recount her more than decade-long journey in shooting—her tiniest slips to moments of despair and victory. She has maintained a notebook where she diligently jots down all her performances, fears, weaknesses and emotional connect with each match. Whenever she needs encouragement to tackle a challenging situation, she just flips through the pages of her notes.

The mental sport that shooting is Sarnobat believes decoding herself over the years through her diary has helped prepare for the biggest moments of her career. One such moment will come in the next few days when she lines up for the 25m pistol competition at the Tokyo Olympics. The 30-year-old is a medal contender, having won two back-to-back World Cup medals this year.

“I have everything noted down and that has helped me grow as a shooter. I just go back to my notes whenever I feel the need for scores of a particular match or how I felt then,” says Sarnobat.

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Years of struggle in the range with form and injuries have toughened her. At the 2012 London Olympics, as a 21-year-old, she was overawed. A look at the scoreboard and she realised she had finished 19th with a score of 579. The cut for the eight-shooter final was 583.

“What has changed for me from Rio to Tokyo is belief in myself. That is the only thing I am doing differently from London. When I finished my competition in London and looked at the scoreboard I felt a medal was certainly possible. I used to initially underestimate myself. I used to feel ‘no, this cannot happen in 3-4 years’. It will take 10 years and only then will I get an Olympic medal. Sometimes, you are working so hard you are capable of getting it, you never know,” she says.

After London, Sarnobat re-set her goals. Then an elbow injury kept her out of the Indian team in 2015, ending the chances of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Only at the 2018 Asian Games did Sarnobat rediscover herself by winning a gold medal in Jakarta, becoming the first Indian woman shooter to win gold in the continental competitions.

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“It was a really difficult competition because of my own expectations and the fight inside me. I was really happy before the Asian Games because nobody was expecting a medal from me. So, I could focus well.”

She shot well in training but competition scores were not high. “The first challenge was to break the barriers in my score. Even in the Asian Games qualifications, I only shot 580 and qualified in the eighth position. So, I thought “okay this is my chance, I can at least come back in the final”.”

In finals, Sarnobat gets into her zone—she loves that pressure.

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“The finals are my thing, like I own the finals. It was a chance to shed fears and doubts about my performance at the Asian Games. My coach and I were absolutely not satisfied with the scores but the medal gave me a boost.”

That she is a different shooter in the final came through in the recent World Cup in Osijek, Croatia. Having won silver in the New Delhi World Cup in March, Sarnobat not only carried good form but oozed confidence in the final, demolishing a strong field with 39 hits out of 50, including five perfect series (one series of five rapid fire shots) to win gold. She was close to the world record score of 40 and was eight points ahead of silver medallist Lamolle Mathilde of France. The field had Olympic champion Anna Korakaki of Greece, who came fifth and Rio Olympics silver medallist in 10m air pistol, Russian Vitalina Batsarashkina, who won bronze.

Having lost a year of competitions due to the pandemic, it was difficult for the shooters to regain form.

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“Even when I was in rehab because of injury, I was not out of shooting for this long. I really know how it feels when you are out of competition. It is really important to be in that zone of training and flow of competition.

“The fire and the eagerness to compete in Tokyo have kept us going even in the pandemic period. I have 10-12 years’ experience; this is when we have to use all our experience. This is an historic Olympics we are part of, taking place after five years.”

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