Man with a Golden Gun

During his international career spanning over a decade, trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu (in pic) has seen the highs and the lows. And he has handled them with equanimity, biding his time and preparing hard for the ultimate trophy that the sport has to offer.

Right from the time he won the team gold in the Asian Championship in 1995 to when he missed the gold in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne earlier this season, the 29-year-old shooter from Punjab has had a roller-coaster ride.

"Winning the Asian Championship now is not such a big thing, but when I was starting my international career it was huge and gave me the confidence to pursue the sport,'' said Manavjit.

He was also proud to have handled well his failure at the Commonwealth Games where he squandered the lead in the final, missed the last shot and eventually lost out on the chance to win the gold and silver medals in successive tie-shoots.

"Looking back I am happy with the way I handled the lows. In Melbourne, I gave it my best shot, given the circumstances. It didn't go my way. It did hurt to miss the gold. I just did not pay much attention to what people had to say, and stuck to my work routine. I had learnt not to take the highs and the lows too seriously,'' admitted Manavjit.

Manavjit took the first big step this season by winning a silver medal at the World Cup in Kerrville, USA, and ensuring the Olympic quota place for Beijing. He then focussed on the bigger challenges at the World Championship. He worked on every aspect with his coach Marcello Dradi, including his physical fitness.

"I prepared very well, especially for the final. I practised on the range earmarked for the final with a single barrel. I was confident, but luck too had to be on my side,'' he said.

Going into the final with a score of 121 out of 125, two points away from the leader and with two others on 122, Manavjit had to stay focussed and do his best. In fact, he had won the tie-shoot along with two others to make the final after four shooters tied at 121.

"My contact lens was giving me problem and I had washed my face before the final. For the first 15 shots, it was just a blur as I struggled with the vision on my left eye. My aim was not to miss the first five or 10 birds, as the pressure would mount towards the end and an early miss would be a double blow,'' he said.

Manavjit did not miss till the 17th and 18th birds. He missed the penultimate bird too, but so did five of the six shooters. "People were just missing their shots. In fact, the leader Pavel Gurkin of Russia missed the most. Imagine the buzzer going nine times on your left before you shoot. I could have taken it negatively, but I let the others struggle. It was one of those days when I stayed aggressive and positive. Things fell in place,'' he revealed.

Manavjit shot 22 out of 25 in the final and won the gold medal by one point.

Having figured in every final in the last 18 months around the world, which is an achievement in itself, the strongly-built Manavjit was ready for the climax much better than the rest. "I couldn't have seen myself doing this two years ago. I don't have any self-defeating mechanism any more. I stay relaxed,'' he said.

"I am satisfied with the achievement, and it would help me get the best possible support for the Olympics from my sponsors, the government etc. But at the same time I know that I am just a point or two ahead of the rest, and not a mile ahead. It is tough to stay at the top and I have to work harder even as I stick to the basics and try to keep things simple.''

However, his coach Marcello Dradi, with whom he has been training since 1998, and in personalised stints in the last two years in Italy, feels that Manavjit is one of the two best trap shooters in the world today, along with Alexey Alipov of Russia, who failed to make the final by one point.

"What can I say about Manav? He is a wonderful boy. He is intelligent and works very hard. He not only does what I say, but many things on his own. I hope he gets the gold at the Beijing Olympics,'' said Dradi, who has been assisting the cream of Indian trap shooters.

Dradi also helped Olympic double trap silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in the early days.

"I was sure that the Indian trap team would win the silver or even the gold. Mansher Singh can be a world champion if he devotes the same time as Manav does. Anwer Sultan started late in his career, but he is working hard. To me, the team medal was big. They won the silver in the last Asian Games, and they would go for the gold this time in Doha,'' said Dradi.

"Manav put his life in training to be a champion and he deserves the luck and the gold. If you are not lucky, you cannot be a champion in this sport, because it is not enough to shoot well,'' stressed Dradi.

Manavjit, who grew up watching his father Gurbir Sandhu, an international marksman, shoot and saw champion Michael Diamond of Australia operate from close quarters, has the passion for the sport. And he clearly knows what needs to be done to be the best.

He knows that there is an aura of mystique to the Olympics, but quickly points out that the top 10 or 12 shooters would be the same in Beijing as at the World Championship and that he would be ready to take on the challenge as the reigning world champion.

Kamesh Srinivasan