A shooter par excellence

Winning a gold medal may be a great achievement but Gagan Narang is happy only when he improves upon his performance. For him gold is not good enough; he is only satisfied when he wins with record scores.-PTI

Two years ago, in the World Cup Finals in Bangkok, Gagan Narang took everybody by surprise with a ‘perfect 600' and a world record overall score of 703.5 points. And as if to prove that it was no fluke, he shot a 600 again, at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, and improved upon his World record by 0.1 point. Truly a stuff of champions. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

He is champion class. The handsome young man from Hyderabad, Gagan Narang, the toast of the entire nation, thrives on his ability to channelise pressure to his advantage, and deliver big scores on the big stage around the world.

The Commonwealth Games may not be a great event when compared with the Olympics, the World Championships or even the Asian Games. But then performing at home, and the pressure that goes with it is really something. The pressure of expectations of so many people can weigh down the best of champions; it can even drive them to disaster, at times. Narang, however, knows the path to destruction too well, so he stays clear.

In the last seven years, after tasting his first success in the Afro-Asian Games at home, Narang has learnt that in shooting, unlike in many other sports, you are your own rival. That the accolades, medals and big money that come with victories are indeed a welcome reward but can also lead to one's downfall. Narang knows this too well, and he hasn't allowed success to go to his head.

Narang is driven by his performance. His hunger for accumulating the 10s, the most sought one in the world of shooting, is insatiable. Perfection may be a chimera, but not in the case of Narang. He can shoot a world record, a perfect 600, irrespective of the stage on which he is performing.

He did it in the World Cup Final in Bangkok two years ago, as he emerged on top from a field of 10 shooters. That was his way of responding to the misfortune of missing out on the finals in the Beijing Olympics. On that occasion he had shot 595, a score good enough to qualify for the final, but he failed to go through on count-back as only eight shooters could make the final.

Beijing was his second Olympics after Athens 2004, and Narang had to learn another bitter lesson. “It does haunt me, sometimes, if I let it,” said the champion shooter of his Beijing Games experience.

But then it only strengthened his resolve, to go for a 600. “It's always in my mind,” Narang said of the score that is unbeatable.

He achieved a perfect 600 for the second time as everyone was focused on the mother of all battles — Olympic and World champion Abhinav Bindra versus Narang — at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Narang did not take anything for granted despite having a five-point lead over Bindra. He blasted his way in the final to a superb score of 703.6, bettering his own World record by 0.1 point. Though the feat will not be ratified by the International Shooting Federation (the world body only approves records set at the Olympics, World Cup, World Cup Finals and the World Championships), Narang had the distinction of setting a Commonwealth Games record that was better than the World record!

It can't get any better in the Commonwealth Games.

“Gagan is a shooter par excellence. I have no doubt in my mind that he will win the World Championship and the Olympic medal one day,” said Bindra in praise of his team-mate.

Narang may have made it look so simple, but you understand the gravity of his achievement only when you see others struggling to fire the 10s on a regular basis. It is never easy. “No competition is light, and never a cakewalk. Every 10 you shoot is important. The idea is to keep it simple, and stick to the basics,” said Narang.

Winning a gold medal may be a great achievement but Narang is happy only when he improves upon his performance. For him gold is not good enough; he is only satisfied when he wins with record scores. He had won four gold medals, all with record scores, in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

For all his heroic achievements, Narang is a simple human being, someone like the guy next door. He is one who wants his deeds to be acknowledged immediately, and can feel frustrated when denied what he thinks is his right. So when he got to know, on the eve of his match in the World Championship recently, that he had been overlooked for the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award by the Union Government, Narang was a shattered man. He went on to win the bronze medal in air rifle, but one would like to believe it was a gold missed.

According to Narang, he was ready to shoot 600, but the unpalatable news disturbed his composure.

Sharing a light moment…Gagan Narang with coach Stanislav Lapidus during the singles 50m rifle 3-position event at the Commonwealth Games. The coach from Kazakhstan has encouraged a healthy competition between Narang and Bindra.-K. ANANTHAN

Ever a realist Narang was taken aback when asked if his success in the Commonwealth Games would trigger a lot more interest in shooting in the country. He then pointed out that Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore's silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics followed by Bindra's rare individual gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics had already given a big boost to Indian shooting. He hoped that his record 600 in front of the home crowd would inspire a new generation of young shooters to attain world standards.

Shooters such as Narang, Bindra and Rathore are excellent role models and great sporting ambassadors for the country.

Despite his success, Narang remains firmly rooted to the ground. He is quite happy to let his gun do the talking.

When asked if he was the next ‘Gold Finger' after pistol ace Samaresh Jung, who had won five gold, a silver, and a bronze and the David Dixon Award for the ‘Best Athlete' in the last edition of the Commonwealth Games, Narang said: “I wish I knew the answer.”

While the previous coach Laszlo Szucsak of Hungary may have motivated Narang by goading him to beat Bindra in every competition — perhaps with good intentions — the current rifle coach in the Indian camp, Stanislav Lapidus of Kazakhstan, has encouraged a healthy competition between the two whereby both Narang and Bindra can get the best out of each other.

Lapidus' mantra is: ‘You don't compete with each other, you compete against yourself.'

According to the National coach, Sunny Thomas, Bindra and Narang together are a dream team. No wonder the records tumble. Bindra is a piece of art that is already on display, but Narang is a work in progress.