Ramkishen Bhaker’s voice was drowned in a gaggle of whistles and howls. He was in the middle of an impromptu party with his neighbours in Charkhi Dadri after his daughter Manu claimed the 10m pistol gold at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, shooting 236.5 in the final. “Initially, we thought we’ll celebrate after she comes. But our neighbours were all excited and we thought why not give it now? It’s an important medal,” he says.
Important not only because it was the Youth Olympics gold, but also as she was enduring a slump of sorts. Both the Asian Games and Changwon World Championship had ended in medal-less desperation, and there was a fleeting phase where Manu’s father wondered whether she was crumbling under the ratcheting pressure of expectations. “She was unusually dull when she returned from the Asian Games. She had returned without medals even earlier, but I’d never seen her so worried,” he recollects. Deep inside, he might have feared Manu would quit shooting, for there had been precedents of his daughter switching from one sport to another because she was losing interest. Not that it’s a sign of impatience or petulance, but she’s still a 16-year-old cutting her teeth at the highest level, where she is bound to have occasional setbacks and she broods over more than the seasoned pros. “She doesn’t like losing, and more than that, she was gutted that she let herself and the country down at the Asian Games,” he says.
Remarkably, Manu had qualified for the final with a Games record, before she tumbled in the final and eventually finished sixth, with compatriot Rahi Sarnobat snapping gold after finishing seventh in the qualifying round. Likewise, she impressed all through the 25m air pistol event, breezing through the qualifiers, before faltering in the final. “She wasn’t the usual cheerful self, kept rewinding those moments, wondering where she had erred. I told her to relax and told her that those are all part of life,” her father says. But try selling those to as obsessively pushy an athlete as Manu.
She was slightly perturbed with the restrictions on the junior shooters too, like the clips on the cellphones and social-media usage, which was confined to an hour. When she spoke openly about it – “They’re seniors. They’re free. They can do anything they want. They can use their phones any time” – she drew a lot of flak from some of the senior players. There were whispers that the hype was getting to her. “I knew the reason she was so irritated, it was because she couldn’t win any medal,” he says. It benefitted that she had an understanding coach in Jaspal Rana. “Don’t you think we are expecting too much from a 16-year-old? They do not know who or what is a teenager. They have no friends around them. Every month they are travelling, they don’t see their parents for 2-3 months at a go,” he reasoned. A few kind words from Abhinav Bindra too helped her rev up.
Matter of self-belief
So when she returned from the World Championship, where she was so listless that she didn’t even qualify for the final, Manu seemed refreshed. She regained her determination, and though she wasn’t shooting well, she had the belief that she would regain her form. “She was very motivated to win a medal at the Youth Olympics and was putting in more hours of practice. She was back to her cheerful ways and we knew she would win a medal,” Ramkishen says. So she did, in quite comprehensive fashion, helming the qualification with 576 before rattling out 10.0, 10.1 and 10.4 with her first three shots. She required that initial impetus to bury the final-jitters of the Asian Games. Thereafter, it was a cruise in both stages, giving little wriggle room for her close adversaries.
After the final shot, she leapt in joy, as much as her parents had ever seen her celebrate. She must have felt incredibly cathartic after what she had gone through at the Asian Games. “We were just praying she doesn’t fumble in the final stage,” Ramkishen, who was streaming the matching live, admits. Manu, too, was choking for words during the medal ceremony. “This is an important win for me. It will be a morale booster as I look forward to bringing home more laurels,” she says, beaming. Her father believes this was her first step to accomplishing her biggest dream of an Olympic gold. The setback and the subsequent fightback will have only knit layers of steel into her nerves. And there, of course, will be another party when she comes home.