At 16, how cool were you? Cool as in nerveless and calm. Not cool as in wearing shades and leaning against a doorpost without falling over? Enough to win golds and silvers at mega events? Inside the first three days of the Jakarta Asian Games, we have been introduced to two teenage babyfaces who won rare individual shooting medals in Asian Games events that are also competed for at the Olympic Games.
On Monday, it was silver for Lakshay Sheoran (19) in shotgun, on Tuesday gold for Saurabh Chaudhary (16) in pistol. Chaudhary, ineligible to drink or drive, won gold on his final shot, against a two-time world champion with a Games record. There was no hesitation, no hyperventilation. As much as their shooting - crisp and old pro-like well into the pointy end of competition - it was Lakshay and Chaudhary's state of repose that was impressive. Naturally the questions come quickly. Where are they from? Outer space? Obviously not. What do they eat? What do these teenagers have that our regular teenage selves didn't? What do these shooters have that those a few generations older craved for?
To start with, that previous generation, who now work as coaches in a sustained and successful junior programme. Jaspal Rana, winner of three individual golds and a silver at the Asian Games, runs the junior pistol programme. Mansher Singh, CWG gold-medallist and Asian Games silver-medallist, is national shotgun coach. Suma Shirur, Olympic finalist and a member of the first Indian women's team that won a medal at the Asian Games (2002), is high-performance specialist coach for junior rifle.
Young Indian shooters had, in fact, already fired some warning shots two months ago. In the Junior World Cup held in Suhl in June this year, India topped the medals table across rifle, pistol and shotgun, winning more medals than even shooting giants China - 26 to 21 - and more golds (six individual and nine team) than the rest of their medals combined. Chaudhary had also set a junior world record in the 10m air pistol event in Suhl.
Shirur says the performances of young shooters at the Asian Games is "not a coindence, not a fluke, not a joke - they are being trained for it." The programme, demanding and relentless, has begun to see results five years after being put into place. The first signs appeared with the emergence at the Commonwealth Games, with golds from pistol shooters Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala. The medals from two teenagers in Palembang is the new generation stepping out and making their own brand of noise.
The junior shooting programme concentrates on a strong technical base, an emphasis on physical fitness and mental training through competition simulation. It means, Shirur says, that when in camp, the shooters must train for fitness as the physical demands of the sport have increased and the shooters are also being prepared mentally about competing. "They are made to compete in our own finals where there is noise, hooting and shouting while they shoot. That's why when in competition it is not new to them." Therefore, "the children are not afraid."
Prakash Nanjappa says this means that the younger shooters come through without having to go through the trial and error methods of their seniors who are he says, "used to try various permutations and combinations in training. Only at the competition do we get to know whether it's working. The drill is again repeated before the next competition." Nanjappa, 42, who is a 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medalist in 10m air pistol adds, "But what I think is helping young shooters like Saurabh is having their techniques streamlined and readymade." He says youthful success offers the older shooters their own lessons, "The thing about these kids is they are fearless. They don't worry about results. That's something I'm also trying to learn from them."
Abhinav Bindra was the original 16-year-old shooting trailblazer who missed an Olympic final in his first Games in Sydney. He calls himself a "sissy" when compared to this new generation whom he admires. After such rapid initial success, whether it is breaking a record or winning a medal, Bindra says the next hurdle will be handling expectation. "Managing success is sometimes harder than managing failure," he says and managing the tough times is what will be fundamental to their futures. Managing the hard times "and how they channelise the weight of expectations, mostly their own, will define how long will their initial promise sustains itself."
Truly was one and these guys are truly something else !!! https://t.co/NfDOm8aCp1
- Abhinav Bindra OLY (@Abhinav_Bindra) 21 August 2018
Shirur says that coaches in the junior programme want to widen and deepen the competition pool. "Shooters will go through their ups and downs, and we have to give them give them the space to fall. We want our programme to ensure that for every shooter going down, there will be those on the upward journey."
Along with the medals and general goodwill, the performances of the young shooters in Jakarta will also be good preparation, she says, for the upcoming World Championships in Changwon, South Korea just after the Asian Games. It is where some quota spots for the Tokyo Olympics will be decided. The biggest deal of the young shooters' lives is only beginning.
With inputs from Susan Ninan