Jayanta Talukdar is feeling it once again. Over the past couple of months, he’s shot as well as he’s ever had. He’s reached the last eight stage of the last couple of archery world cups. In the latter of the two in Gwangju exactly a month ago, he toppled the reigning Olympic champion Mete Gazoz and then led two-time Olympic gold medalist Kim Woo-jin 5-1 in the quarterfinals before losing by only by the barest of margins on the shoot-off arrow. He can sense there’s a medal around the corner, perhaps even at the Paris World Cup that begins on Tuesday.

It’s not a prospect many would have thought of about a year back. It had been two years since he’d last represented India and 12 since he’d won an international medal. An Olympian at London, he failed to make the Indian teams for the 2014 and 2018 Asian Games and the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. At 36 years old, Talukdar was already among the older guys on the archery circuit. Poor technical habits he had developed had seen him pick up injuries on both his shoulders. Then in April last year after trying and failing to make the Indian team for the Olympics, he’d caught the COVID-19 virus.

Terribly sick with the Delta variant, he was rushed to the ICU with chest pains and an oxygen saturation level in the seventies and dipping. Yet even as he was being wheeled in, Talukdar recalls thinking about archery. “I was really sick, but I was thinking about archery. I was thinking about the fact that I had won medals at every competition but not the Olympics. At that time, I was thinking if I get one more chance, I’d do everything I could to take part in one last Olympics,” he says.

 

After nearly a week in intensive care, Talukdar eventually recovered. He’d lose 15 kilos and most of his stamina. When he tried to pick up a bow, he couldn’t even draw the string halfway before shaking uncontrollably. “At that time, I thought I was done. I was thinking, wow, this is going to take a long time to recover from,” he says. In hindsight, Talukdar says he can see the silver lining to his illness.

While COVID knocked him off his feet, it also allowed him to press the reset button on his career. Talukdar had been forcing himself to compete with injuries that had developed due to bad technique. The break gave those wounds time to recover and allowed him to correct those kinks in shooting form.

Talukdar didn’t have bad technique starting out. Lim Chae Woong, the long-time coach at the TATA Shooting academy in Jamshedpur, who had worked with Talukdar since 2003, had seen to that. But Woong had left for Korea in 2013, and that’s where the mistakes started to creep in. “It started little by little, and then because there was no one to correct it from the start, it became really bad,” says Talukdar.

The immediate issue was the fact that he was pulling his left arm away from his body. While a little tension in the shoulder was needed, Talukdar was exaggerating that stretch which in turn caused a cascading effect on every other muscle he needed for shooting. Instead of using the muscles on his right shoulder blade (levator scapulae) to pull the string, he ended up using his fingers. Eventually, he picked a grade two tear on his labrum – the rim of cartilage in the shoulder bone that serves as the attachment point for the ball-shaped joint of the upper arm. Trying to compensate for the pain, he’d pick up an injury on the tendon of his left arm too. “It seemed that wherever I put a load, I was getting an injury,” he says.

READ: Archery WC stage 2: Indian men's compound team win successive World Cup gold medals

 

While Woong returned to India in late 2019, it was only post his spell of COVID that Talukdar began working in earnest to correct his technique. “I didn’t want to make any major corrections because that would have affected my chances for qualification for the Olympics. I was shooting in the trials after taking painkillers. It was only after my illness that I had the time to make the changes,” he says.

To begin with, Talukdar started using a low-power bow. Instead of using the bow with a 44-pound draw (poundage refers to the weight needed to draw the string), Woong had him switch to a 33-pound one. “It was really strange. That’s the sort of bow a kid uses. You can barely shoot to 10 meters accurately with it. But that’s the one I had to use. It was as if I was starting out again,” he says.

Talukdar would correct his stance. Instead of raising the bow above his eye line and then pulling the string, he now raises it only to his shoulder level before drawing. “That way I can consciously make sure that my shoulder isn’t pulling away from my body,” he says.

He’s also using the muscles on his right shoulder blade to draw the string and not his fingers like he used to. By doing so, he’s also able to find a consistent anchor point (the position on his chin to which the string is drawn before being released). “In the past, the arrow would sometimes go up to where it needed to be or slip down. But now I’m confident about where it is. We only have about four or five seconds to hold the arrow before releasing it, so when your anchor point is secure, you are more relaxed, and your release is smoother,” he says.

Over time Talukdar has added power to his bow as well-- he’s now shooting a 42-pound bow – and plans to return to the 44-pound one by the end of the year.

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“I didn’t want to make any major corrections because that would have affected my chances for qualification for the Olympics. I was shooting in the trials after taking painkillers. It was only after my illness that I had the time to make the changes,” he says. (File Photo)

 

The changes he’d made to his shooting would pay out when in March this year, Talukdar finally qualified through the selection trials for the Indian team. But just as he’d get a chance to savour his comeback, he’d be hit with another shock. When Talukdar was competing at the World Cup in Antalya, he would learn that his father, Ranjan, was seriously unwell.

By the time he returned to Guwahati, he would find out the man, who had initiated him into the sport of archery and whom he considered his biggest supporter had passed away due to a blood clot in the brain.

“I still had another world cup in a few days,  but at that time I didn’t even want to continue shooting. But my family reminded me just how much my archery meant to my dad. He would collect all the newspaper clippings with my name on it and would be very protective of my equipment. My family reminded me how the most important thing for my father was that I continue to shoot. When I shoot now, I shoot not just for myself but also to honour him,” he says.

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With funeral ceremonies to take care of, Talukdar didn’t get to train before the World Cup in Korea. Despite that, he produced some of the best shooting of his career. “A lot of people were surprised but also happy. Abhishek (Verma – who won gold in the compound team event) came up to me and said, ‘sher abhi budha nahi hua’ (the lion isn’t old just yet),” he says.

There is still plenty of room to improve though. He’s currently training in Sonepat as part of the national camp. Although Woong is not allowed to train Talukdar, the two keep in touch over the phone. “I’m shooting 400 arrows a day just like the younger shooters. I think my technique is also improving. It would be great if coach Woong was allowed to come to the camp. I’m improving a lot, but I’d get a lot better if I was able to train with my coach,” he says.

And while the World Cup in Paris on Tuesday will probably be his last competition of the season (following the postponement of the Asian Games), Talukdar is already looking to make the most of that disappointment. “I was in good form this year but going to use the time I have to get even better. I have a plan to add around 15 kilos of muscle that will keep me more stable when I’m shooting,” he says. He also thinks he can get stronger mentally. “I was comparing the footage of my shooting in Gwangju to how I was back in 2010 (when he last won a medal at the World Cup) when I think I was shooting the best in my life. And the only real difference is confidence. Because I’ve had so many setbacks, I’m still not as fearless as I used to be. But I’ll get that same belief back. That will also return,” he says.