A double delight in double trap

IT was a pleasant evening. The heat and dust of the competition for the day having settled down, it was a serene atmosphere in the picturesque setting of Bisley, a breathtakingly beautiful caravan spot in Surrey.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was a pleasant evening. The heat and dust of the competition for the day having settled down, it was a serene atmosphere in the picturesque setting of Bisley, a breathtakingly beautiful caravan spot in Surrey. There was someone who was agitated even in that fantastic atmosphere.

Rathore with Russell Mark (left, silver) and Walton Eller (gold). — Pic. GAURAV SONDHI-

Coach Marcello Dradi of Italy was looking at a set of clay targets that he had collected with great care, and sighed at the fact that many of them had not broken despite distinct marks on them that they had been hit by the cartridges.

Yes, those indigenous English birds were hard as rock, and the ammunition that the Indian double trap shooters had used at that time were not good enough to `chip' the targets, unless they were broken with a hit square in the middle.

Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore did not win a medal in that Commonwealth Championship in 2001, though the Indian team bagged a rich haul of 27 medals including 13 gold. In fact, Rathore had not even made the final, and finished seventh with a 126 out of 150. However, the Italian coach declared that he would win an Olympic berth. Rathore had been in the sport for only three years by then, and two years hence he has proved the coach right.

The emotional Dradi was reportedly in tears as he congratulated Rathore for winning the World Championship medal in Nicosia, Cyprus, recently. For, after all, the genial Dradi had not predicted that Rathore would march thus far in such a short time.

Well, who could have, as the World Championship medal has been far too precious to be predicted for Indian shooters. Only Dr. Karni Singh had won one earlier, a silver in trap in the World Championship in Cairo in 1962, when he shot a 295 out of 300.

Of course, pistol prodigy Jaspal Rana had won the gold in the junior standard pistol event in 1994 in the World Championship in Milan, Italy, and more recently rifle shooter Rajkumari Dodiya had won a bronze in the junior prone event in Lahti, Finland, last year. But the real medal among the seniors was coming in the grasp of an Indian only for the second time in history.

The 33-year-old Rathore had gained world class experience in the last two years, asserting his own undisputed class against the world and Olympic champions with a rare touch of assurance.

If his 50 out of 50, a rare feat in double trap in the World Championship in Lahti was the initial hint that he would strike huge later, what Rathore did in Bisley last year in the Commonwealth Games was phenomenal.

Rathore won the badge competition, the prelude to the real championship, and retained his focus to win the pairs gold with Moraad Ali Khan and the individual title. He beat Olympic champion Richard Faulds, Olympic silver medallist Russell Mark, who had in fact won the Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta apart from the World Championship in Lima, Peru, in 1997. Former double trap World champion and two time Olympic gold medallist in trap, Michael Diamond of Australia could not even make the final.

That was a sure sign of Rathore's brilliance, as he shot a 49 in a nerve-wracking final to deny the gold to Russell Mark, who had trailed by one point in the preliminary phase. It was easily the best of the 30 gold medals that India won in the Commonwealth Games, and it was sheer ignorance that Rathore was not even considered for the Arjuna award.

Quite funnily, Rathore was not cleared originally for the Manchester Commonwealth Games by the government. He went through anxious moments before being given the green signal.

On the positive side, that experience showed Rathore that he had it in him to start thinking about an Olympic medal rather than be content to make it to Athens, which in itself has been a huge task, because there are few quota places to be won in double trap, 17 to be precise as compared to 30 in skeet and 28 in trap.

It was this confidence that kept Rathore on the right track, even when he kept missing the quota place narrowly in the World Cups in Delhi, Granada and Lonato. Rathore had finished third, fourth and eighth in those competitions in that order. The pressure was very much on him to deliver. And some of it was self-imposed as he tried too hard to succeed.

He did deliver in Nicosia with impressive rounds of 49, 45 and 47 that ensured an Olympic berth for him, as the five others in the final, Adam Vella and Russell Mark of Australia, Walton Eller of the US, Ahmed Almaktoum of the UAE and Danielle Di Spignio of Italy had already confirmed their quota in earlier competitions.

Rathore had qualified as the fourth into the final with a 141, and shot a spectacular 48 out of 50, the same as what the eventual gold and silver medallists did, to be among the medals.

Almaktoum, who was one point ahead of Rathore prior to the final, dropped two birds before the Indian ace dropped his first and that clinched the issue in the eventual analysis.

``I did it! Better late than never. It feels great to win a World Championship medal'', said Rathore, quite pleased with his effort, that emphasised that he was doing the right things despite the ups and downs.

To win the solitary Olympic quota from a field of 71 shooters from 30-odd countries was an impressive fare, and to win a World Championship medal, that was only his fourth individual in an international competition was fabulous indeed.

Had he missed, Rathore would have had one last chance in the Asian Championship in Kuala Lumpur which would offer one quota for double trap as compared to three each in trap and skeet.

From picking up a gun with two triggers for the two birds in the pre-national Mavlankar competition and the national championship in 1998, and a humble beginning at the World Championship in Tampere, Finland, in 1999, Rathore has made rapid strides in the World arena. A diligent student of the sport, he has been watching the top shooters from close quarters and noting the relevant points for his own practice.

Apart from the support from coach Teimuraz Matoian who helped him strengthen his basics for about a year, Rathore has hardly got any professional coaching. The support from Dradi has been mainly in terms of motivation as the Italian is a trap specialist.

The fact that Rathore has been shooting high scores despite the change in the technique of the birds being released with a variation of 0 to 1 seconds on being called from this season, shows that he has trained himself nicely into a rhythm in sync with the demands of the new situation.

When you have only one and a half seconds to shoot down two birds flying in different directions and heights, at 90 kilometres per hour, you need to be on your toes all the time. And unlike other competitions when you shoot 50 to 75 birds a day, you have to shoot all 200 birds on the same day in double trap.

In those earlier days, when he was using primitive weapons, the guns used to "kick like a mule'', and Rathore needed to be on painkillers to overcome the difficulties. Things have changed a lot from those days.

After a stage, competing against World standards and World class shooters is more psychological than physical. Rathore has strengthened himself with a sound attitude, and knows that it is the rest who fear his ability to beat them in their backyard, rather than it being a case of himself feeling unsure.

In reality, an easy-going character, Rathore has doting friends in the circuit who want him to do well, rather than fear that he may beat them.

"I will work on my weaknesses, and hopefully learn from mistakes'', Rathore says, with a smile.

Yes, that is the advantage with Rathore, he learns from others mistakes. That is exactly how he has stormed into the World arena in such a short span.

Rathore has made plans to train with Laporte machines that would be used in Athens, and possibly work with his friend from Italy, Luca Marini, for about a month, in his bid to be at his best in the Olympics next year.

When he is shooting at his best, Rathore is capable of winning any medal. It will not surprise some of us who have been following him closely, even if he wins the gold in Athens. Honestly, that is no exaggeration of his ability.

With the army and the government providing him adequate support, Rathore will be as earnest in his attempt, as is humanly possible.

Through the ups and downs, Rathore has retained his equanimity and that is going to be his best friend at the moment of reckoning, which is just about a year away.

The results :

Double trap : 1. Walton Eller (US) 192 (48); 2. Russell Mark (Aus) 191 (48); 3. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (Ind) 189 (48); 4. Ahmed Almaktoum (UAE) 187 (45); 5. Danielle DiSpignio (Ita) 185 (45) (4); 6. Adam Vella (Aus) 185 (46) (3).