India to send biggest-ever shooting contingent for Paris Olympics

India will be fielding their biggest-ever shooting contingent at the Paris Olympics. Pistol shooter Rhythm Sangwan on Thursday sealed India’s 16th Olympic quota with a bronze medal in 25m sports pistol at the Asian Olympic qualifying event in Jakarta.

Asian Games gold medallist Esha Singh, Rhythm Sangwan and Manu Bhaker (L to R)(PTI)

At the Tokyo Olympics India had 15 shooters. With the qualifying events yet to be completed, India are expected to go well beyond the Tokyo mark. A maximum of 24 Olympic quota places can be secured. That said, the challenge will be to win a medal at the Olympics. Indian shooters have returned empty handed from the previous two Olympics. The dry run at the Tokyo Olympics was more disappointing, considering the impressive performances of the shooters in the run-up to the Games.

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The focus will now shift on the preparation for the Paris Games, but before that, shooters will have to confirm their places in the squad during a domestic trial in May. After Tokyo, a new lot of youngsters have come through the ranks and national coaches will have to ensure that the Olympics first-timers are able to soak in the pressure that comes with it.

“There is a lot more emphasis on mental preparation in this Olympics cycle. A sports psychologist is part of the team now,” says Ronak Pandit, chief coach pistol (25m).

“Besides, the high-performance coaching team has been relying on data such as breathing pattern of shooters, skin conductance response and heart rate to determine when they are entering the zone. A lot of background work has happened after Tokyo that is showing results,” says Pandit, the former international who was also part of the support staff in Tokyo.

“Before every major event, the shooters are being told by the coaches on the likely challenges they are going to face that might affect their performance.”

Sure, these steps are being taken following the lessons from the Tokyo debacle. In the last three years several new faces have been performing well for India at the world stage. The big success has come in rifle, where India had all eight quotas secured even before the ongoing qualifying event. In pistol, India have now grabbed six of the eight spots. Only two have come in shotgun so far.

“In Tokyo, we had some big names and proven champions (Saurabh Chaudhary, Apurvi Chandela, Rahi Sarnobat etc) but despite them not winning quotas this time, the system has churned out replacements and they have impressed. We have won berths in rapid fire and we have strong shooters in the 25m sports pistol. Also, the improvement in performance at the Asian Games and World Championships show that we are on the right track for Paris,” says Pandit.

Relief for Rhythm

Rhythm, who shot the quota place on Thursday, is among the new brigade. The 20-year-old has consistently shot high scores at the world level in the last two seasons. She won a World Cup bronze last year and recorded a world record score of 595 in the qualification. However, she was missing out on Olympic quotas. In the last two World Championships she qualified for the final stage (ranking round in 2022) but just fell short of the coveted Paris Olympics berth.

“I was very upset after the world championships. I came so close to winning the quota. But my personal coach (Vinit Kumar) pulled me out of the low phase and we did the course correction needed at that point. I dedicate this win to my coach Vinit sir who has been my biggest strength in my career,” said Rhythm.

For someone who started shooting back in 2016 when her police officer father brought her to the shooting range, Rhythm never looked back. “I just loved the sport from the start, the range, the sound of the guns.”

As a junior, she won four medals at the world championships in Lima in 2021 to kick-start a stellar career. All these years, her eyes were set on the Paris Olympics. On Thursday, Rhythm was focused and determined to shoot down an Olympic berth. She top scored in qualification with 588. In the final she had 28 hits out of her first 35 targets, and finished behind two Koreans who were ineligible for quotas in the event.

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