Manu Bhaker: The ballerina of ballistics!

So far, Manu Bhaker has shown the right signs. The year 2019 will see whether she is able to deal with tougher challenges in her bid to clear the passage for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Bulls Eye: Manu Bhaker is all happiness after her 10m Air Pistol gold at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.   -  REUTERS

For some, success comes sooner than expected. For most others, the wait for its first taste is longer. Having hit it big even before turning 17, Manu Bhaker belongs to the rare breed of sportspersons carrying the country's expectations in shooting. Armed with gold medals from the World championship and the Commonwealth Games, Manu is now eyeing an Olympic medal from the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Just two years into the sport, Manu is showing signs of a champion with huge potential and a great future. Under the watchful eyes of National coach Jaspal Rana, once the pistol man of Indian shooting, Manu has stayed on target more often than not. In 2018, she beat the field in the World Cup in Mexico and added the mixed pairs gold with Om Prakash Mitharval. In the two Junior World Cups, in Sydney and Suhl, she won the air pistol titles to go with the a gold and a silver with partner Anmol Jain. Gold in the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast gave her the exposure she so richly deserved. Though she could not make it to the podium in the Asian Games, finishing fifth, she became the first Indian girl to win a medal in the Youth Olympics, in Buenos Aires, besides collecting a silver from the mixed event.

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Though the blank from the Asian Games was clearly not in keeping with the rising expectations from the teenager, Manu was unperturbed. In fact, she attributed her Youth Olympic Games gold to the confidence she had after shooting 574 in qualification of the Asian Games. It is interesting to note that Manu shot less than 574 in winning gold medals in the World Cup and the two junior World Cups. In Buenos Aires, Manu shot a 576, her best in the year, in the qualification phase. In sports pistol in the Asian Games, Manu topped the qualification with 593, a shot shy of the world record! Manu later described it as “my best performance till date.”

The Mexico gold: Manu Bhaker (centre), the gold winner in 10m air pistol at the Shooting World Cup in Mexico, proudly displays her medal.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

She has had a dream year just two years after taking up the sport! Her father, Ram Kishen, introduced her to shooting after he saw her losing interest in combat sports that she had pursued till then. With a background of Merchant Navy, Ram Kishen who owns the Universal Senior Secondary School, introduced Manu to shooting at the School’s range.

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He made her promise that she would pursue the sport for at least two years. Manu liked shooting and soon her father was told that she was shooting like a pro. “I was not sure of buying her an air pistol since I was not sure if she would be able to sustain her interest in the sport,” is the candid admission of Ram Kishen. “I bought her a 10m air pistol and she has not looked back since.”

As things turned out, Manu kept firing great scores. She did well in the National championship and then eased past the challengers in the Khelo India competition. Having already beaten the seasoned pistol shooter Heena Sidhu in the National championship in December, she went on to qualify for the Youth Olympic Games.

It was in March 2018 that Manu faced her real test of character during the World Cup in Guadalajara. Qualifying for the finals in the fifth position, Manu produced her best after being on the brink of missing out on the gold medal. Two 8s meant Manu trailed Mexico’s Alejandra Zavala by 1.4 shots going into the final shot. The local girl, however, succumbed to the rising pressure and could only manage a poor 8.8. Manu shot a 10.6 to bag the gold. She also became the youngest Indian to win a World Cup gold medal.

“I was nervous during the elimination round after I hit those 8s. But I knew I could not afford to think too much about these shots and had to quickly get these off my mind,” recalls Manu.

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Having been coached at the school ranges by Suresh Kumar, Naresh Kumar and Anil Kumar before honing her skills under Jaspal Rana, Manu is already shooting world class scores. As things stand, the junior shooters are giving an astonishing account of themselves thereby raising the expectations for 2019.

Intensely competitive: Shweta Singh, topper Heena Sidhu and Manu Bhaker at the National shooting selection trials in Delhi on December 27, 2018. Competition is getting intense and Manu realises that there is no room for complacency.   -  KAMESH SRINIVASAN

 

Manu is one of the flag-bearers of Indian shooting. However, she is facing the flip side of fame at a young age. Presently at an age where she has to cope with the attractions and distractions of the growing-up years, Manu conveyed what she was going through. During one of the interviews at the Asian Games, she spoke about feeling constrained with the restrictions imposed by her parents and the way her friends shy away from having fun with her because she is now a Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

Talking about her parents, Manu was quoted as saying, “They make limits for me, like... Eat that..., eat this... don’t go there..., do this..., don’t do this..., don’t use your phone..., don’t do this now..., go to bed. It’s a bit too much.”

Unlike other junior shooters who compete in the senior ranks, Manu finds these restrictions from home difficult to deal with. In fact, juniors in the Indian team are told to use the phone not more than an hour a day while the seniors have no such restrictions. Sensing Manu’s predicament and her appeal to her parents not to accompany her on overseas tournaments, 2008 Olympic Games gold medallist Abhinav Bindra had a word of advice for the youngster. Bindra tweeted, “Dear Manu - this is the life you have signed on for. It’s your choice. These are not sacrifices , this is a privileged life. Make the best of it. You have a wonderful coach and mentor to guide you. All the very best for the next few exciting weeks!”

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Honour in Haryana: Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal felicitates Manu Bhaker in Jhajjar for her Commonwealth Games gold.   -  PTI

On what she noticed about her friends’ change of behaviour after she became a celebrity, Manu says, “Your friends are like, ‘No, we can’t have fun with her. She’s a Commonwealth gold medallist — we must respect her.’” But all credit to the youngster for understanding the fact that her parents mean well and the idea was never to restrict her freedom. She trains as hard as she always did. She wakes up early, goes through the routine of yoga and meditation before spending hours on the range. She is now firmly focussed on gaining an Olympic berth for Tokyo.

With other young shooters also raising expectations, Manu is lucky not to have the focus entirely on her. She can see other teenagers coming up with startling scores and understand that there is no room for complacency. Going by her monk-like concentration, the maturity to deal with a bad series and stay focussed on the next shot, Manu is truly the kind of talent that evokes hope and expectations.So far, Manu has shown the right signs. The year 2019 will see whether she is able to deal with tougher challenges in her bid to clear the passage for the 2020 Olympic Games. At the same time, it is only wise to remember that Manu is only 16 and faces the danger of becoming a victim of the expectations she has raised in 2018.

After all, Manu, and many like her, cannot be treated harshly if their performances are not in keeping with the hopes they generated in the past year. Looking at the challenges these teen-talents face, the need is to be patient and encourage them to stay focussed on the target.

Indeed, they are as keen as anyone else to watch the tri-colour fly high with our National anthem playing in the background on the world stage!