Fuelled by the desire to excel

SHE IS only the second Indian woman after P. T. Usha to make an Olympic final, and the first Indian shooter to do so. Anjali Vedpathak was forgotten after the Sydney Olympics where she finished eighth in air rifle.

The 31-year-old Anjali got married and could have quit the sport to enjoy the good memories for a lifetime, possibly telling stories to her children later, how great it was to be among the top-eight of the world in the biggest stage of all.

For Anjali, it was just a beginning, not an end. The flame was lit, and it was burning with a desire to excel. After months of inaction, she bounced back on the world stage yet again, this time improving to the fifth position. It was a commendable effort, for she lacked expert coaching and the exposure at the international arena, in the intervening period.

What was most noteworthy was that Anjali was so good that she shot better than what the Olympic gold medallist, Gao Jing of China had achieved in Sydney. In the Munich World Cup, Anjali followed a 397 out of 400 with a 100.9 in the final for a total of 497.9, missing a medal by 1.4 points. The Olympic gold had been bagged with a score of 497.2, when Anjali herself had shot 493.1.

Rarely do Indian sportspersons make such rapid progress, though one has to agree that the Olympic figures are generally lower than the world marks, for the pressure there is totally different to what they experience anywhere else.

How did Anjali manage to improve just by shooting in the training camps, where it may have to be conceded that the national chief coach Prof. Sunny Thomas ensures a systematic build-up for major events. ``It was indeed very difficult to shoot well. In the World Cup in Milan, a week before the Munich event, I learnt a lot of things. And after a few training sessions in Munich on electronic targets I gained a little confidence which helped me in my match. It proves that we need more exposure to keep our consistency'', said Anjali, who had shot a 392 to finish joint 18th in the World Cup in Milan.

Of course, Anjali has been consistent in the World Cups. She made three World Cup finals last year in Sydney, Milan and Munich and repeated the effort in the Olympics in Sydney as well.

But she had always been finishing eighth, for lack of experience on the electronic targets, which make for a world of difference after you shoot all your life on paper targets. It makes a huge difference in the final, where each shot has a maximum value of 10.9 rather than 10.

``The fifth position gives me a lot of confidence. But this may not continue for long as the non-availability of a professional coach has started giving us some complex, and our self- confidence, without a coach, will not last very long'', said Anjali.

The Indian rifle team benefited immensely during the stint of Laszlo Szucsak, as the Hungarian expert groomed the talented shooters to world standards with his remarkable sincerity and unquestionable knowledge. However, his contract expired after the Olympics, and the authorities were unable to renew his contract for various reasons.

Szucsak met the Indian team during the recent World Cups, and in fact helped Anjali during her match when her rifle malfunctioned. The amiable coach who is with the Japanese Association now, was all praise for the Indian shooters.

``I was very happy to see the Indian shooters again. It was the icing on the cake that they performed very well. It means that I raised real athletes, who can use the knowledge, who can keep the flame to be better and better'', said Szucsak, quite thrilled with the good showing of Anjali, and Abhinav Bindra who landed a medal, that he had been threatening to shoot down for some time.

``On the other hand, I feel that they need, especially the young generation, a good coach. I don't know about the plans of NRAI. Good and cheap coach is a difficult matter. Anyway, if I know some I will recommend him/her'', said Szucsak, who has been travelling all over Japan, conducting training camps and giving lectures.

``Yesterday in Osaka, and today in Hiroshima. Everywhere, there are good shooters'', he said, quite optimistic with his new stint, which is a lot more rewarding than what he could eke out, well below the promised salary, from the Indian authorities.

The Indian officials have apparently been told about a Russian coach and the Sports Authority of India in collaboration with the NRAI is optimistic of hiring him by September.

``The Olympics was a stepping stone and a major confidence booster. I am encashing on the confidence without a coach till now'', said Anjali, as she hit the nail on the head.

A professional coach is required quickly before the shooters lose their touch. But there is more to follow, in terms of the requirements to excel.``We need good infrastructure like electronic targets which are difficult to get used to for Indian shooters abroad. Good quality of ammunition to suit our weapons, and not just whatever that is available. That makes the difference between getting a medal and just missing it ! Also, maximum match practice to withstand the pressure during finals in major competitions'', said Anjali, quite clear about the basic needs to shoot world class medals.

There was a recent announcement that the Government would send Abhinav Bindra for training in Germany, 45 days at a stretch, thrice a year. There was also a promise that a similar programme would be made for Anjali. While it was news for Abhinav, who has been spending all his resources to gain maximum experience in Europe and guidance from the best coaches in the business like Heinz Renkemeir and Gaby Buehlmann, Anjali is keeping her fingers crossed.

Both Abhinav and Anjali are clear that they do not want to monopolise the support from the government, and a good expert would help everyone, which would be good economics as well.

``Basically, Abhinav is a sincere, talented and hard-working shooter. He has utilised all available resources properly. The exposure in the European circuit matches have helped him keep his form'', opined Anjali, who has herself been an inspiration to the 18-year-old Abhinav with her string of appearances in the World Cup finals, apart from her excellent efforts in the Commonwealth and Asian Championships, not to forget the SAF Games.

Well, Anjali is fully focussed on the forthcoming Commonwealth Championship in Bisley, England, in August. There are also the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, and of course, the World Championship, next year. There is a lot to look up to. Marriage has enhanced the focus of Anjali on her sport, rather than proving a hindrance.

``It is not difficult to pursue sports, if your husband and in- laws are supportive, and are keen followers of your sport. I feel much more relaxed and confident now, than before marriage, when I didn't know how my sport would be accepted by my future in-laws. It has now become an addiction. It also keeps me fit, physically and mentally'', said Anjali, as she emphasised the healthy scenario.

There are a string of other shooters like Anuja Tere and Suma Shirur, both of whom shot 394 in Munich, and Kuheli Gangulee, who are breathing down Anjali's neck, keeping her on her toes, and boosting the overall standard.

It is an encouraging sign, and the Indian shooters, women especially, deserve all the support. The Afro-Asian Games may prove the real booster to the shooters, with the upgradation of infrastructure at the Tughlakabad range. If a good foreign coach can be hired without any further waste of time, Anjali Vedpathak and company are sure to give us some precious medals soon.

They are as good as you can get anywhere in the world, and need the best backing to help them realise their potential. For, after all, they are not asking for the moon.


New Delhi