Anjali books an Olympic berth

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

SHE had made it to the Sydney Olympics at the last minute, on a "hardship quota," a special grant made by the international body. Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat has now become the first to book a berth for the Athens Olympics.

Anjali ensured the quota by bagging the silver in air rifle in the Atlanta World Cup, behind Lioubov Galkina of Russia, who had already qualified for the Olympic Games in Athens with a gold in the 3-position event in the Sydney World Cup.

The lady with the golden gun was at her best as she shot a 399, with a series of 100, 99, 100 and 100, to lead a pack of 60 shooters. That was as close to perfection as you can get.

In the 10-shot final, Anjali had the gold in her grasp till the last shot, as she led the eventual gold medallist by 0.2 points. However, her 9.6 to the 10.5 by Galkina saw Anjali settling for the silver, but the Olympics quota made her happy.

The CISF inspector based in Mumbai was sure of her slot following the 399, and thus was not overtly pleased about the quota.

"Actually, it wasn't that thrilling because my preliminary score was so strong that I was very much confident of getting it. I was more happy after the preliminary match. 399 is a pretty good score," said Anjali, on her return from Boston, where she spent a few days with her sister and parents after Atlanta.

Looking back at the way she squeezed her way into Sydney for the Olympics, Anjali is pleased with her progress which she emphasises has been mainly due to her understanding husband Mandar Bhagwat, who extends wholehearted support to her endeavours, and loving in-laws.

"There is a vast difference. I feel that we were so amateur then, that only a year before the Olympics we had started getting good scores. We are already at that level now. I was very excited then, because it was an unexpected entry for me. Now I am working for it. So getting a quota is just part of my mission. The real work starts now," she says with an understandable degree of maturity and a passion to achieve more.

The medal winners in the air rifle event in the Sydney World Cup shooting championship (from left): Anjali Vedpathak (India, silver), Sun Hwa Seo (Korea, gold) and Katerina Kurkova (Czech Republic, bronze).-

Even with that 'hardship quota', Anjali was able to make the finals, as she became only the second Indian woman after P. T. Usha, to achieve such a distinction. Now, she is one of the very best in the world, following her silver medals in the Sydney and Atlanta World Cups, which have only reinforced the confidence placed on her following her outstanding performance on the European circuit at the beginning of the season, not to forget the breathtaking 105.8 in the national championship final in Indore.

It could well have been the gold for Anjali at Atlanta, but she looks at the whole thing with a professional eye, rather than being disappointed about the narrow miss.

"It is part of the game. Losing by big margins makes a difference but 0.7 is, I think, where really luck counts. A final score above 102 is always a good score, but getting only 10s or good 10s needs luck. Remember Galkina and I shot the same score in Munich but the final difference was so close," says Anjali, as she recalls her effort in the World Cup in Munich last year when a medal eluded her by a narrow margin.

Anjali had a fine string of 9.2, 10.7, 10.5, 10.7, 10.1, 10.4, 10.8, 10.2, 10.4 and 9.6 in the final of Atlanta for a total of 102.6. It was only the fourth best total in the final, but her 399 pushed the rest, who had only scores of 397 to 394, aside.

While Anjali had a total of 501.6, Martina Prekel of Germany shot a 499.2 to take the bronze, 2.4 points behind.

Anjali did win a silver in the Sydney World Cup earlier, but the difference from the gold was bigger as Sun Hwa Seo of Korea shot a World record 400 in the preliminary phase, while Anjali had a 397.

A mysteriously low last shot, despite Anjali doing everything right, had denied her a medal in the Shanghai World Cup. Was there any trace of nervousness at any stage, especially before the last shots in Shanghai and Atlanta?

"Don't you think we are beyond that stage now?! It didn't cross my mind at all. I was very much concentrating on my technique," she said with the usual confidence.

There could have been another medal for Anjali at Atlanta, as she equalled her best score of 582 in the 3-position event, but it continued to elude her in the event.

"Since my weapon was malfunctioning, I was using my colleague's rifle, which is a different make and model. It takes time to adjust. I consider my performance to be satisfactory, considering that there is no dedicated 3P training. And also there is no specific tested ammunition, which is absolutely necessary for medal winning edge," says Anjali, with conviction.

Anjali could have added to the laurels had she been allowed to compete in the World Cup in Milan. But Anjali and four other Indian shooters - Suma Shirur, Anuja Tere, Deepali Deshpande and Pournima Gawhane - were unable to get the Italian visa, and thus had to return from Atlanta instead of competing in Milan.

The others, the women rifle shooters in particular, can have a realistic attempt for the quota, when they compete in the Asian Championship, especially in the light of the Chinese and the Koreans having clinched their quotas already.

As per the rules, a shooter can win only one quota, but would be allowed to compete in other events as well. A country can have a maximum of two quotas in each event.

There is, of course, a lot of expectation from Anjali that she would win a medal every time she competes.

"I play the game with utmost sincerity and enjoy it thoroughly. I don't think about the results," she says.

Anjali has won medals consistently over the years, and there is no reason why she cannot continue in the same fashion. The World Championship is the next big stage for her to showcase her undisputed class.

"The competition is going to be tough, since the World Championship is held every four years, and everybody would be keen to do well. All the good shooters are in competitive mood, and will be performing at their peak. I intend to do the same," Anjali said.

As there has not been much specialised coaching for nearly two years, Anjali opted to train with Laszlo Szucsak, 15 days before the World Championship in Finland, thanks to the support from the Sports Authority of India.

She may not be a celebrity yet, but Anjali Vedpathak Bhagwat (as she wants to be called), knows that she is on the right track. She is the star of Indian shooting, as she has taken the sport to a different level. Of course, it has to be conceded that the shooters on the whole have been winning medals by the dozen in international competitions, projecting a healthy state of affairs despite all the hurdles, much in contrast to many other disciplines.

Three cheers to Anjali. She is on a mission, and should strike every medal that matters!