When Ramkishan Bhaker put his ear to his mobile phone on Wednesday, he was grateful for the tone of daughter Manu's voice at the other end. Just a few minutes before, the 17-year-old had finished fourth in the 10m air pistol event at the ISSF World Cup in Munich. While she had been beaten to a bronze medal by just .1 of a point, Bhaker had still managed to win an Olympic quota for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Should Bhaker be chosen to represent India in Japan, she could theoretically participate in both the 25m pistol and the 10m pistol mixed team event too.
It is a significant moment in her career and she managed to be a bit cheeky about it too. "She told me 'Thode style se quota aata toh aur accha hota, (If I had won the quota with some style, it would have been better)" says Ramkishan. But if there wasn't any overt elation at her achievement, there was definitely relief. "I could make out from her voice that she was so relaxed now," he says.
He admits being relieved himself. Only a day back, the phone conversation between the two had been made under completely different circumstances. Competing in the final of the women's 25m pistol event, Bhaker, with the field whittled down to five, was in the lead, in sight of a gold medal or at the very least, an Olympic quota (simply finishing in the top four would have assured that). That's when her gun malfunctioned and she exited in fifth place.
Shooters prize the ability to stay calm and collected under the most-pressing circumstances, but Bhaker broke down in tears. While compatriot Rahi Sarnobat went on to win both the gold and Olympic quota, Bhaker had her head buried in her arms with her coaches attempting to comfort her.
Bhaker's rise from obscurity at the start of 2018 had been meteoric; with gold medals at the Guadalajara World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics. Yet that rich vein of early success seemed to have petered out in recent months. She had a chance to win an Olympic quota at 2018 World Championships but failed to advance past qualifying in the 10m pistol event there and subsequently the World Cups in New Delhi and Beijing earlier this year.
She had reached the finals of the 25m pistol in New Delhi too but had faltered there as well, finishing in fifth place. The malfunction of her pistol on Tuesday, a freak incident caused by a cartridge not ejecting completely, was just the latest, if most spectacular, mishap that Bhaker had to deal with.
Through her semi-slump over the past few months, coaches admit they were worried. While other shooters also had bad days, the 17-year-old Indian seemed shattered by every loss. National coach Pavel Smirnov had noted her emotional frailty as a weakness to overcome too. "She's very emotional," is what Smirnov says he wrote. "You cannot let the emotions rise beyond a certain amount. You must have a red line. And if your emotions go beyond a certain point, it will make your technique useless," he had said following Bhaker's loss in New Delhi.
Father Ramkishan had noticed this too. With every Olympic qualification tournament that went without a quota, the usually happy-go-lucky teenager grew moodier. "Over the last few months, she was getting more nervous. After her first year, everyone started telling her she was sure to go to the Olympics and that puts its own pressure when it doesn't seem to be happening. Every time she missed out on the quota, she would go into a shell for some time. She would take time before she even started talking again," he says.
So when his despondent daughter called him after the disastrous evening in Munich a couple of days ago, he had done his best to cheer her up. "I said I would buy her a new pistol when she got back. I told her 'Manu, you go and buy anything you want'. And she told me that she would only be satisfied with a quota," he says.
That bit of grit with which she ended her call was telling. A few months ago when talking about her vulnerability, Smirnov had said the solution to the problem lay with her too. "The ability to deal with setback and courage has to come from the athlete herself. It cannot be taught. She is very young. And she has enough time to become stronger. If we didn't win a medal or quota here (New Delhi), it isn't a problem. There will be many more chances for her," he had said.
That chance came in Munich. If her emotional strength was tested like never before, Bhaker aced that challenge. The qualification cutoff for the final in Munich stood at 578, a score Bhaker had managed only once in international competition. On Thursday, she advanced to the final with a qualification score of 582 - by far her best result. In the final too, she started with a poor shot of 9.2. That would be the lowest she shot over the remainder of the final.
And while she might have just missed out on a place on the podium, Bhaker doesn't think she will have to wait too long. On Thursday, she will partner Saurabh Chaudhary in the 10m pistol mixed team event. For all of her struggles in the individual category, Bhaker's pairing with Chaudhary has been remarkably successful with the combination winning mixed team gold medals at each of the two previous World Cups this year. She's hoping to make it three out of three now. And with plenty of competitions remaining in the year, Bhaker is confident of winning the big medals once again. That's what she's told her father too. "She's not going to be under any pressure from now on. She told me 'Quota aa gaya hai ab medal bhi le ke aungi.' (I've got the quota, now I will get the medals as well)," he says.