Saurabh Chaudhary took a break to sip water. He had just fired a perfect series of 100 and climbed to second position in the qualification stage. From a poor start with a series of 95, the 19-year-old at his first Olympics was picking up pace. The fearful rhythm that Chaudhary is known for since he had started global shooting events by storm was back. The 10s kept coming and he finished right on top at the end of the qualification round at the Asaka Shooting Range, becoming the first Indian shooter to top the qualification in an Olympics.
A few lanes away from Saurabh, Abhishek Verma was staging an even bigger revival, climbing from the bottom rung towards a top-8 finish. It looked good for both Indian pistol shooters to qualify for the final. Together, they had won medals at the Asian Games. Verma faltered at the last few steps, his last two shots, 8s, pulled him down from seventh to 17th
Only the top eight from qualifying make the final field.
In the first event of the day, Elavenil Valarivan and Apurvi Chandela had failed to qualify for the women’s 10m air rifle finals, so the shooting contingent’s focus was on Chaudhary. In finals, Chaudhary rarely slips. It’s his forte. The eight-shooter final had Olympics and world championships medallists shooters – Pang Wei of China, Germany’s Christian Reitz, Damir Mikec of Serbia–but Chaudhary had seen them off in tough competitions several times.
Even during the sighting shots – taken to test the adjustments of a firearm before a match begins – he was finding the inner 10s. But it was a completely different Chaudhary that turned up for the final. From the very first shot, he struggled. Nobody had seen him shoot like that before. He started the first series with a 10.1 but the next four shots were all 9s. He could not pick this time even in the second series of five shots and even hit a 8.8. He bowed out at seventh place. The Indian shooting contingent cheering for Chaudhary fell silent, perplexed. Here was a teenager, making his debut at the biggest stage for his sport, but such was his formidable reputation that everyone expected a medal.
“I gave my best. There was a problem at the start and I was not getting the hits right but I tried to follow the process. The rhythm was missing,” said Chaudhary. “Its my first Olympics. My family, coach has supported me a lot and that’s why I am here. I am not disappointed. This is just a start for me.”
Did he feel the pressure of the Olympics any different from the World Cups where he has stacked up medals?
“No,” he said. “My coaches just told me to take it as a normal competition. So, I was not feeling pressure.”
Pistol coach and former shooter Samresh Jung too said that pressure was not the problem, or else he would not have been able to shoot the way he did in the qualification.
“In the qualification too he was having some trouble but he managed it well,” Jung said. “In the final he could not manage it. It happens in shooting. Sometimes things don’t work out. If the rhythm breaks, it can be very bad. I would not take anything away from him.”.
Chaudhary will again line up at the shooting lanes in Tokyo, this time in the mixed doubles competition with Manu Bhaker on July 27.
“I will prepare the same way. There is nothing to worry about,” he said in his usual flat tone, with his usual inscrutable expression.