It takes a lot to impress Abhinav Bindra. But on Thursday, it took a 15-year-old 80 shots in sultry conditions at Palembang’s JSC Shooting Range to make the Beijing Olympics gold medallist sit up and take notice.
Shardul Vihan eventually won silver in the men’s double trap event, but more than the medal, Bindra’s interest was piqued by his peculiar pre-shot process. Before taking his twin shots, Shardul pulls out a shotgun shell from the pocket of his jacket, holds it to the line of his eye like holding a candle reverentially in front of a deity, drops it back in his pocket and lines up his shot.
The technique is to ensure that he doesn’t over-think going into a shot and his mentality is positive, says Anwer Sultan, who represented India in the trap event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is Shardul’s personal coach since the teenager began shooting.
“I have told him to do certain things before a round. He followed that dutifully at Palembang. I have told him to breathe deeply before taking a shot and he needs to follow the process irrespective of whether he hits the clay targets or not,” Sultan tells Firstpost.
It was with this peculiar process that the 15-year-old from Meerut first qualified in top spot in the double trap event and then sent 73 more pink puffs swirling in the Palembang sky to snare a silver medal in the event even as Ankur Mittal, his more seasoned compatriot in the discipline, crashed out in the qualifying round.
With the medal, Shardul joined a growing list of teenage prodigies from the country to have impressed at the Asian Games. Their medals are also a vindication of sorts for the National Rifle Association of India’s policy of allotting a significant part of their budget to the development of junior shooters.
On Thursday, Shardul pipped Qatar’s Hamad Ali Al Marri to the silver medal and gave South Korea’s Shin Hynwoo a scare for gold despite Al Marri and Hynwoo having started their shotgun careers before the Indian was even born.
His first trysts with sport were through cricket and badminton, but when neither endeavour worked out to his satisfaction, he turned his attention to shooting, aged just 12.
“In Meerut, there's a tiny shooting range. But that has just a manual target system. Besides, whenever we hear of shooting we would only hear about Anwer Sultan. He lives in Shaamli, which is not that far from here. We thought if he can make it big hailing from there, he can help our son do the same too,” Shardul’s father Deepak, who is a farmer, tells HT.
When Shardul first went to him, Anwar wanted to see what kind of student he was taking under his wing. So he took him to a table tennis table and then to play badminton.
“There I noticed that his reaction time was good. And since he was young, I was sure that I could develop him just the way a shooter should be developed. If someone is already trained, it is very difficult to change his technique,” says Sultan before adding, “In shooting you need a lot of training. But he was up for it.”
The 15-year-old’s current regimen is to wake up at 4 am in the morning, travel two and a half hours from Meerut to the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi for six days of the week to train under Sultan. Then he travels two and a half hours again from New Delhi to his house in Meerut. Some days, he returns only at 8 in the evening. This training regimen has left him little time for school, which he attends just once a week sometimes.
“Jab bhi practice se time mil jaata hai toh school jaata hai (Whenever he gets times from training, he goes to school),” says Deepak.
His single-minded dedication led him to make waves last year at the shooting nationals. He clinched four gold medals, including in double trap junior and senior categories.
“I couldn’t believe it when he won a gold medal in the junior and senior Nationals last year at the age of 14, then also. After those gold medals, I started training him even more seriously,” says Sultan.
The coach believes that Shardul should have won gold on Thursday, given his form going into the six-man finals.
“He could have won gold going by his performance in the qualification round where he topped. But winning a medal at the age of 15 is a great achievement in itself. Eventually he lost by just a point,” says Sultan.
The 56-year-old has a simple explanation as to why junior shooters are doing so well for India in recent times. “When you are that age, you don’t know what pressure is,” Sultan says, “These youngsters are going into such big competitions for the first time thinking that they may not win. But when you have experience and go into competitions feeling that you need to win, that’s when pressure starts to build up.”
“But now the problems start. We need to keep him grounded after this,” says Sultan.
Additionally, with double trap being eased out by ISSF, the sport’s international governing body, the youngster will soon have to switch to the more difficult discipline.
“Double trap will not be an Olympic event from Tokyo 2020. So I need to help him transition to trap, which won’t be easy.”