‘My strength is the willingness to change’

Heena Sidhu, with her mother, proudly shows her World Cup gold.-PTI

“I am growing every day, and this medal (World Cup) just proves that I am going in the right direction,” says Heena Sidhu in this interview with Kamesh Srinivasan.

It was a world record that went unnoticed. Heena Sidhu was simply brilliant in capturing the gold, in the women’s air pistol event, in the World Cup Final, a competition for the elite.

The event was meant for the top 10 shooters of the season and Sidhu beat the World and Olympic champions, with an enviable margin of 5.2 points. It was mesmerising fare from the 24-year-old dentist from Patiala.

Many knew Heena, who had taken part in the Commonwealth Games in 2010, for her killer looks. The pistol just added to her personality. Heena was given the Olympic quota place for the London Games ahead of the Athens silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, when both had failed to qualify.

She had won the World Cup silver, in Beijing, in 2009, as a precocious talent. At that time, Indian shooters were revelling on the global platform and even the religious followers of shooting had failed to take notice of her medal in Beijing. But then came the Munich event and Heena took the spotlight.

A strong personality with an admirable clarity of thought, Heena did hesitate before the last shot in the 20-shot final in the World Cup. Then she mastered the situation to deliver her ‘’Signature shot’’. It was a perfect 10.

A total of 203.8 saw her beat the reigning World Champion Zorana Arunovic of Serbia by a wide margin of 5.2 points. Heena had started with two shots of 9.3 in that final.

“But for those two shots of 9.3, which did not mean that I had a shaky start, I would not have had such a great final,’’ recalled Heena. Here are the excerpts from an interview.

“Getting invited to the World Cup Finals in itself is an achievement, especially in a field that had Olympic champions, World champions and World record holders. Winning a gold medal at such a stage cannot be guaranteed, because everybody out of the 10 deserves to win. The finals which was my strength, somehow turned out to be a challenge with the new rules. So, I trained especially for the finals in the past few months. I analysed my mistakes. Ronak (Pandit, her husband) and Anatolii (Piddubnyi, her coach) helped me and this was just a result of very hard training,’’ says Heena.

“I am growing every day, and this medal just proves that I am going in the right direction,’’ says Heena. That direction is towards a medal in the Rio Games in 2016, the ultimate goal.

One of Heena's paintings. "I have been painting and sketching, since I was 10. I still paint frequently," she says.-

“Back in 2009, I was more of a raw talent. Now I feel more in control when I go for a match. I had identified hundreds of mistakes through the years and worked hard. I have changed everything about my shooting. In fact, I have changed my entire technique. But, I have changed myself so slowly that I did not let my scores suffer.

“I think one of my strengths is the willingness to change. If I feel that I am doing something wrong, I would find a way to improve on it. Once, I find a way to improve I would work hard to achieve that goal. Sometimes this can also become a weakness. It is very easy to be too analytical and too hard on yourself. That is when Ronak comes into the picture. He makes sure that I am not harsh on myself. When I get angry on myself he makes me step back and see the big picture and show me the way to improve. Once I step back, I also give my feedback and my suggestions to Ronak and Anatolii. I don’t train too much. It is not because I don’t want to train, but I make sure that I train only when I am hungry for training. If I feel that I am getting tired of shooting, I would take a break for a week, paint and may be do some mental training. It is very important to strike a balance.

“Anatolii is an expert with the technical aspect of shooting. He makes me do difficult training exercises to improve my trigger control and stability. He identifies technical problems that I face. On the other hand, Ronak makes sure that the training I do helps me in the stressful environment of a match. He makes me do simulation training and tries to recreate the match environment. He makes me shoot against imaginary shooters and makes sure I don’t crack under stress. He keeps a record of my performances and makes sure that my graph is always going up. Basically, Anatolii teaches me how to shoot and Ronak helps me win medals!

“I do feel that I understand the demands of the new format. The trick lies in doing what needs to be done. The new format has made the finals very challenging. We need to make sure that we forget the scores of the qualification. A shooter needs to enter the finals with an entirely different mindset, needs better stamina to last the 20 shots. Endurance training is required both for the body and the mind. For some, the tactics have to change.

“The London Games taught me a lot. The Olympics is not just about being a good shooter. There is so much more to the Olympics. Just entering the Village on your first day can be a tough job. I know what it takes to make your Olympics go smoothly. The Olympics has taught a lot about my shooting. After the Olympics, I have changed the way I train. I did a lot of pressure training before the Olympics also, but it has started helping me now. The Olympics has given me a better grip of myself more than my shooting.

“I had a lot of trouble, trying to get the support of the government. The Mittal Champions Trust helped me a lot. Still, I ended up paying a huge amount from my own pocket towards my training. Sometimes, it makes you wonder, whether you are doing it for your country or doing it for yourself. If I am doing it for my country, why is it that there is no matching effort? Shooting is not a glamorous sport like cricket. We love this sport and we are good at it. All the shooters are educated and can make a decent living. So, we did not start shooting for name or fame. The least the government can do is support the training of the top shooters. Before the Olympics, I did not get even 20 per cent of my training expenses from the government. I was in a very bad state when I went to London. I had entered into contracts with the professionals to improve my scores, thinking that the government would support my expenses like they were supporting many others. I was promised assistance, but I just got a fraction. Mittal Trust helped me paying some of the bills and some I had to pay myself. I hope they will see me as a medal prospect in the future, and hope I would not have to go through this again.

“At the moment, I just enjoy being a shooter. For the next few years, I will only concentrate on shooting. I enjoyed studying BDS. It was my decision to be a doctor, and I am happy that I am one today. Shooting and my studies suffered because I could not give my 100 per cent. But I didn’t want to leave my studies. This is my first year just being a shooter, and my scores have improved. I may not be a practising dentist, but I don’t want my hard work that I did for BDS go waste. “I have been painting and sketching, since I was 10. I still paint frequently. It relaxes me and this relaxation also helps me in shooting.”

For sure, Heena Sidhu is a model champion, not just for her good looks alone.