The Indian archer Deepika Kumari's plans for Tokyo 2020 did not come out well as once again she failed at the biggest stage and failed to win a medal for the country. The 27-year-old recurve women's world number two came to the Games in the Japanese capital with the goal of winning an Olympic medal.
Kumari had tried twice previously, in London 2012 and Rio 2016, to win India's first Olympic archery gold, but had come up short both times. But Tokyo, she thought, would be different. She had, after all, had the perfect start to the Olympic year, winning two gold medals in the Archery World Cup Stage I in April before winning a hat-trick of gold medals in the showpiece event in Paris in Stage III.
The Ranchi-born archer was in fantastic shape and eager to show it off. “When you’re thinking we don’t have a single medal in history so we can’t mess this up, it’s just the wrong sort of pressure,” Kumari said in a recent interview with ESPN India. “It’s not just about what people expect of you, but also what you want of yourself.”
Despite improving on her previous two Olympic performances by reaching the top eight, Kumari was upset in the quarterfinals by first seed An San of Korea, who thrashed the Indian 6-0. After collapsing, the archery ace was left distraught.
“I know I wasn’t good enough in Tokyo or I’d have a medal with me today.” Kumari continued. “When you fail after you’ve told yourself ki yeh karna hi hai (that I have to do this), you begin to doubt everything you know. I began to wonder what I am even doing with myself anymore.”
But Kumari knew she wasn't alone, even if she despised what she was going through. After she was eliminated from the women's competition, her husband Atanu Das, who was participating in the men's solo event, became India's only chance in archery. Once he was defeated by Japan's Furukawa Takaharu, the pair found themselves in about the same situation and were able to support each other.
“Between us, I think I was more devastated after Tokyo, “ explained Kumari. The archer recognized she needed to let go of some of the unwelcome pressure that had been holding her down since she first had the world number one place in the sport at the age of 18 when she first held the world number one spot in the sport.
The married couple decided to change things up after taking a two-month break — during which Kumari admitted to still wondering about what her competitors were up to. In addition to checking out a new practice facility, they traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, to compete in one of the world's largest indoor archery championships — a far cry from the outdoor events they are both used to.
“The indoor event was freeing,” Kumari continued. “It was like a mela (fair)… No tension, no pressure, everyone’s here to shoot arrows and enjoy themselves. That’s the sort of attitude we need to build. We’re always overthinking and sometimes taking on pressures that aren’t even supposed to be ours.
"I'm trying to get better at positive self-talk, goal-setting and worrying less."
In September of last year, Das expressed a similar sentiment to his wife with Olympics.com, indicating a need to free himself from objectives that aren't obviously his: “We had sacrificed life beyond sports and given it our all to archery. So, at the end of the day it feels like we have lost everything when the performance doesn’t come out as per our expectations. “That is why I’m trying to balance everything so that we don’t take excessive pressure,” the archer explained.
“We shouldn’t believe that the game is everything; it should be considered as a part of our life. I think we all are capable of clinching medals at the Olympics but then we become too serious during the mega event.
“I think that winning a medal at the Olympics should be normalized as many other countries do.”
After dismal results in the national archery ranking competition in January, both Tokyo Olympians were withdrawn from India's Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).
TOPS is the main initiative of the Indian sports ministry, which aims to financially assist India's Olympic medal contenders. The authority that decides who is eligible for financing made the decision to cut relations with the married pair in the end.
Both Kumari and Das have accepted the decision in stride, realising why the choice was made and why they are now more than ever determined to deliver:
“We were very disturbed that we could not get the results we wanted in the Olympic Games,” Das said after the news was announced.
“We took a break from competitive archery after the Olympic Games. I know it is a matter of time before we find the form and get back to where we belong.”
Kumari said, echoing her husband's sentiments: “I will be motivated to return with good scores in the competitions ahead.”
With a crowded itinerary that includes World Cup tournaments and the 2022 Asian Games, this year will undoubtedly be a hectic one for the couple. Both archers will be aiming for victory and, with it, a feeling of balance.