Tokyo Olympics 2021: Saurabh Chaudhary, India’s pistol prodigy

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The impact Saurabh Chaudhary has had on Indian shooting can be felt when you travel to his village Kalina in Meerut, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the center of Delhi.

Kalina is now a village of shooters. Pre-teens throng its single shooting school, where Chaudhary, himself just 19, learnt his craft. At one time, this school saw only a handful of students, mainly those hoping to land a job with the armed forces. Now they all want to emulate their teenage hero and become sport shooters.

They also believe that Chaudhary will win an Olympic gold in Tokyo. There is nothing fanciful about that conviction. Chaudhary has been nearly unbeatable ever since he began shooting at the elite level two in 2019.

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Chaudhary’s neighbour and childhood friend Shubham Siwach, a national level shooter with whom Chaudhary had first walked into a range, has even started adapting some of the world No 2 pistol shooter’s personality traits.

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“I have started to talk less and spend most of my time at home,” Siwach replied. “Saurabh has been successful because he doesn’t talk much, he is not that social and he keeps to himself. It helps to concentrate on shooting.”

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The shooting school in Kalina is run by Amit Sheoran, who continues to be Chaudhary’s personal coach. The school is a modest one-room building which used to be a rough, tin-shed structure when Chaudhary first started. Since equipment and bullets were hard to come by, much of Chaudhary’s early training was spent on “dry shooting”, going through the motions of taking a shot but not actually firing a bullet, or standing under the hot tin roof for hours, holding the pistol up, with half a brick tied to his wrist, to build endurance.

That was in 2015. Three years later, Chaudhary then just 16, became India’s youngest gold medallist at the Asian Games. In 2019, he set the new world record, swept the shooting world cup cycle with six golds, and came second-best at the Asian Shooting Championships.

In Tokyo, he may be the reason India wins a medal on the very first day of the competition, when he takes to the range for the 10m Air Pistol event on July 24. Shooting alongside him will be compatriot Abhishek Verma, who is currently the world No 1.

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Can Chaudhary or Verma emulate Abhinav Bindra’s Beijing success? India is yet to win an individual Olympic gold since Bindra’s breakthrough in 2008.

Bindra himself feels that there may be the unprecedented possibility of “a gold medal match between India A vs India B.”

“That will be wonderful,” Bindra said with his characteristic restraint.

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Here is a good time to introduce a cautionary note.

India went to the Rio Olympics with 10m Air Pistol shooter Jitu Rai in supreme form. He was known for being able to soak up pressure. But pressure he felt, by his own admission, in Rio. One of the steadiest hands in shooting faltered. Indian returned without a shooting medal in 2016.

Chaudhary has a similar reputation of being fearless and uncluttered. He is very introverted and refuses all interview requests.

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“He never had too many friends. They would call him but he would not go, he hardly attended social functions. It was just home and some close friends. That has been his life,” Chaudhary’s mother Brajesh Devi said.

Chaudhary found a purpose with a pistol in hand and a target – a sport that allowed him the comfort of the solitude he so loves, and yet be able to chase success.

Bindra said that the “sensory overload” of the Olympics leads to “cognitive decline that’s going to affect your performance.”

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But in Tokyo, which will have no spectators and an almost complete absence of that “sensory overload” because of Covid-19 restrictions, Chaudhary may feel perfectly at home.

“You’re pretty much locked into your own room and are going to compete. So it’s much closer to a normal tournament that you’re used to competing in, so it should play up to our advantage,” Bindra said.

“He trusts his process,” said India’s pistol coach and former international Samresh Jung. “Even if wins a gold he would still want to know where he went wrong.”

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During the 2018 World Cup, when one of his shots in the mixed team final was a 8.9 before he picked up with a series of 10s, Chaudhary had a simple reply to how he made his comeback: “I forgot the shot.”

But there is more to Chaudhary’s strengths as a shooter. Shahzar Rizvi, who, just before Chaudhary’s phenomenal rise was India’s top pistol shooter, talks about why he rates Chaudhary so highly.

“His core is very strong, which provides him with balance for long hours. His fundamentals are strong. He has good technique. He is disciplined, hard-working and completely dedicated to shooting. You won’t find him on social media or in any other activities. He is not shooting gold medals and world record scores just like that. He is fully prepared for the Tokyo Olympics,” Rizvi said.

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If Chaudhary comes out of his shell, it’s for his teammate Verma.

“Whenever we find time during tours, we go out. We joke around. At the Jakarta Asian Games when both of us were in the finals and the atmosphere was so tense inside the dressing room, we were the only two shooters talking and laughing. It made the situation light for us,” Verma said.

In that final, Chaudhary’s first senior international meet, he announced himself to the world. The field featured world champions and Olympic medallists, including the formidable South Korean Jin Jong-oh, who has three Olympic golds.

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Chaudhary is, in fact, a candidate for not one but two Olympic golds in Tokyo. With Manu Bhaker, he forms the finest mixed pair in pistol. The duo had won gold at all four shooting world cups in 2019.

The shooting calendar took a pandemic break in 2020. In 2021, the pair again won gold when the world cup cycle restarted.

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