Rahi Sarnobat's Olympic debut was far from memorable, as she made an exit in the qualification round, back in 2012 in London. However, with loads of experience under her belt now, the 30-year shooter is aiming for no less than a podium finish in Tokyo, when the event gets underway on July 23.
When Rahi Sarnobat was exposed to the Olympics for the first time in 2012, she had a World Cup bronze and a couple of Commonwealth Games medals to boast of. However, the pistol was alien to the glitz and glamour of the spectacle and that immediately got the better of the situation. She was just happy to be there, reluctant to unearth the capabilities she had hidden inside her. Inevitably, a first-round exit was on the cards, with Rahi’s London voyage ending as the 19th placed shooter in her pet 25m pistol event.
Nine years later though, the Kolhapur-based athlete has undergone a major transformation ahead of her second appearance at the mega-event. Apart from several achievements, including World Cup gold medals and the 2018 Asian Games gold medal triumph, Rahi has established herself as one of India’s major medal prospects at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Reaching the juncture has been marked by few road bumps, including an injury that sidelined her for a year in 2015. But, that has only helped her grow as a shooter and reshape her career.
“I think that break in 2015-16, I don’t think it re-established me, but it changed my perspective and because of which I have made so many decisions in my career and life, that I would not have been able to make without an injury phase in my life. I thought of giving everything I had in me, whether it’s concentration, dedication or money, whatever I had and that is when I decided to hire a coach and have my own physical trainer, physio and nutritionist to help me prepare in the best possible way for the Tokyo Olympics,” said Rahi Sarnobat, during an exclusive interview with SportsCafe, from Zagreb, Croatia.
Rahi is now part of India’s biggest-ever shooting contingent at the Olympics, with the unit expected to bring back assured medals from Tokyo. Along her journey, German coach Munkhbayar Dorjsuren played a major role. One of her competitors during the 2012 London Olympics, the veteran shooter with all her experience acquired over the years, infused valuable inputs and moulded Rahi into the shooter she always wanted to be.
“Munkhbayar Dorjsuren did impact my career a lot, not only technically but I really understood how the professional athletes’ life looked like. It really made me understand the technicalities of shooting and how important it is to be disciplined and what hard work is. So, basically, what I was doing was not wrong or unnecessary, but she fine-tuned my game, added a different perspective,” recalls Rahi.
“She changed my definition of hardworking and the definition of being a professional athlete. That changed me as a professional shooter. When I chose her as my coach, the only expectation was that the coach should have an experience where I want to be. She was an Olympic medallist, World Champion, with all the achievements she has, all of which I want to achieve.”
For the time being, the entire focus is on the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with the event drawing closer each day. An event of such magnitude demands high-intensity training and preparation in the build-up phase, but, with the pandemic looming over, it’s tough to stick with the desired plans. It was almost after a year gap that Indian shooters were treated to a competitive atmosphere at the 2021 ISSF World Cup, in Delhi. The host nation finished as the best performing nation in the event. However, that still may not present us a fair assumption or an actual trend in the lead up to the Tokyo showdown.
“I think the New Delhi World Cup was very important, given the time it happened. We did not have any competition for a year and we were waiting for one. It was a great opportunity to check ourselves on where we are and where we wanted to be and all that technical stuff. It didn't indicate anything, but was a lesson and experience,” said the first Indian female shooter with a gold medal at the Asian Games.
In the backdrop of the dreadful situation in India, where approximately 4000 people are succumbing to the Covid-19 virus each day, the NRAI (National Rifle Association of India) swiftly shifted the Indian contigent's base to Zagreb, in Croatia in order to provide them with the best facilities for training ahead of the Tokyo showdown, as well as to keep them safe. The two-month tour also includes the European Championships and the ISSF World Cup - events in which India could not have participated if the team was stationed in India. For the same reason, the contingent would be flying to Tokyo, directly from Europe when the event approaches.
“Of course, it is a really really great decision that our federation has made, the efforts, the thoughts, the money the NRAI and the government of India have spent on our training. Most importantly, they are taking such steps to ensure our safety regarding our health in the pandemic situation. It’s a great decision (sending the team to Croatia),” she credited the NRAI.
“The other federations are still discussing the future course of action, but haven’t taken any decision regarding training and participating in different competitions. At this moment, only the Indian shooting team has taken such a drastic step in the build-up to the Olympics and all I really appreciate is the thought process of the NRAI.”
Although all roads lead to Tokyo, the recent backlash from the Japanese people to cancel the Olympics owing to the worsening situation in the country has once again ignited fresh controversies. But, the athletes are not giving up on their dreams. There’s no confirmation that the quadrennial event would be skipped and Rahi is not convinced to view the situation as a distraction. Because for the last one-and-a-half years, she has learnt to live with the new normal, a world where unpredictability thrives. Inside the shooting range, the pistol is the only prop she needs to worry about and striking the bulls-eye is her only aim, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics - her only focus.
“I don’t think it’s a distraction. The pandemic has been in the world for more than a year now. We are very well adapted to the situation, we are aware of the quarantine we’re going to go through, the SOPs to be followed during the training and travelling. So, I think this is what we have expected and the team is now ready for everything because we have seen so many competitions getting cancelled,” stated Rahi
“So, I don’t think of it as a distraction, but not something we like to have either. If a competition is cancelled, we understand that, because if we are not safe, there’s no point in going somewhere and participating. We are trying to be as safe as possible all because of the Olympic Games,” concluded the Tokyo-bound shooter.