Gun and glory

Abhinav Bindra celebrates with coach Sunny Thomas (right) after winning the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. This photograph, autographed by the champion shooter, is one of the prized collection of the coach.-Abhinav Bindra celebrates with coach Sunny Thomas (right) after winning the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. This photograph, autographed by the champion shooter, is one of the prized collection of the coach.

He is largely responsible for giving Indian shooting the attention it so richly deserves. Meet India’s national coach Sunny Thomas. By A. Joseph Antony.

“Thank you for all your support and your belief in my abilities. The best to you always.” This was the note India’s lone Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra wrote on the photograph that he autographed and gifted to Prof. Sunny Thomas. The photograph shows the small-built marksman looking up to Sunny Thomas, literally and figuratively, in a memorable moment shortly after history was made at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Not long before that, India’s National coach had nearly fainted when Bindra began with a dreadful 4.5 in the sighting rounds. Calm and composed, the Indian shooter gave his weapon a few clicks that saw him fire a 7 on the next shot. Soon he was rubbing shoulders with the best, recording scores in the region of 10 before setting himself apart from the elite eight who made the final in Beijing.

And yet, Thomas wouldn’t have witnessed history from such close quarters had he had his way. Thrice he had rejected the offer of becoming the National coach, prompting Antony Blaveth, a devout Christian and Thomas’s colleague at St. Stephen’s College in Uzhavoor, Kerala, to make a stunning prophecy in the early 1990s.

“You can reject the post but not the will of God,” Blaveth said. In his vision, he had seen Thomas receiving an award from the first citizen of India in the presence of armed guards. Clueless about sport and its attendant honours, the Malayalam Head of Department could not shed further light on the award. (Thomas was conferred the Dronacharya Award by President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam in 2002 for his meritorious services to shooting.)

Ever enthusiastic about shooting, Thomas is enamoured by the shooting range in the Chatrapathi Shivaji Sports Complex at Balewadi, Pune. “This range is totally electronic, of international class and eminently suited to hosting even a world championship,” he says.

“The 50- and 10-metre ranges have 80 firing points. Fifty firing lanes in the 25-metre range can enable 10 rapid fire marksmen to shoot simultaneously. Till the Tughlakabad range is ready, all camps will be held here,” Thomas adds.

Over 90 shooters (rifle and pistol) train at the Chatrapathi Shivaji Sports Complex range in preparation for the four World Cup competitions, beginning with the competition in Korea in April, followed by Beijing, Munich and Milan.

Curiously, Thomas’ interest in shooting was triggered by a self-made catapult with which he showed remarkable accuracy. He then began hunting birds with an air rifle amidst the verdant flora and fauna of his native Kerala. Thomas then joined the Kottayam Rifle Club in 1965 where he graduated from sandbag shooting to win five medals (two golds, two silvers and a bronze) in his maiden state championship that year.

After obtaining a Sharp Shooter certificate from the Weapon Training School, Ahmedabad, Thomas, who became the head of the English Department in his college when he was just 22, continued to excel in competitions in Kerala before climbing the podium at the 1976 Chennai Nationals where he won the gold in the .22 rifle three-position.

Thomas, however, wasn’t satisfied with his achievements and thought of quitting the sport and practising in isolation for which people dubbed him mad. The blessings of former Deputy Superintendent of Police Venkatachalam, the first rifle gifted to him thanks to the efforts of former Inspector General of Police V. N. Rajan and the encouraging words of then Kottayam Collector Lalithambika egged him on. Besides, the fears expressed by Kumar Surendra Singh, President of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), that shooting would be taken off the priority list after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, made Thomas to accept the challenge.

The holder of ‘A’ licence from the International Shooting Sports Federation (ISSF), which allows him to be a Judge and Jury member, Thomas has represented India as coach, manager or technical official in four Olympics, four Asian Games, five Commonwealth Games, four World Championships and over 40 World Cups. A man committed to shooting, Thomas is largely responsible for giving the sport the attention it so richly deserves.