It was the news of an accident that forced a very young Mehuli Ghosh to quit the sport her parents had initially chosen for her. At only three, her mother had taken her to a local swimming pool, where the little girl took to the water like a fish. But before she could master her strokes, there came news of a swimmer dying in one of Kolkata’s famous pools. When that reached Mehuli’s ears, she decided to shun the pool, and the dream of becoming a swimming champion sunk prematurely.
Nonetheless, Mehuli Ghosh grew up to be a champion athlete, picking up medals in most of the events she participated in school. But it was not till 2013 that she decided on the sport she wanted to pursue seriously. “I had a liking for action movies right from my childhood. I came to know about shooting from a school friend who had started training at a rifle range nearby. I came and told my parents, but they started talking about how expensive the sport was. I took my enquiries further and then came to know that the club – Serampore Rifle Club – provided all the equipments to its trainees. I convinced my parents to let me join the training,” says Mehuli, reflecting on the time she decided to take up shooting as a young 13-year-old.
“She showed her talent in every sport she tried and that gave us the confidence that she will be doing well in shooting, too. She did every well in karate and was a very good Kathak dancer and used to regularly perform in many stage shows,” says her mother, Mitali.
“It is only once you decide to take shooting professionally that the expenditure comes as you need to buy your own rifle and the necessary pair of jacket-trousers. I guess it is the same with games like cricket and golf, where you need your own kits,” says Mehuli.
Considering the few rifle clubs that West Bengal has, Mehuli was fortunate to be living close to an area that boasts of a shooting club. “I joined the six-month initiation course at the club and became a regular going there on Sundays. Once I had completed my course, I decided to pick up 10m air rifle as my discipline,” she says.
A young Mehuli had to think about the financial capability of her parents. She consciously adopted a category that was the least expensive. “Comparatively air rifle is less expensive than the 50m prone (the other discipline available at the club), so I decided to go on with that. And within one year of starting it, I won second place in the junior event in the state championships and then got third place in youth in the pre-nationals. That convinced me further to continue with what I had picked,” Mehuli says with a sense of triumph and assuredness.
“I won nine medals (two golds and five silvers) across categories in my third nationals in 2016. I joined Joydeep (Karmakar) Sir’s academy in 2015 and the training I received there gave me the right direction and I started winning events,” she says.
“When she stared winning medals in shooting, we took her off Kathak classes and allowed her to focus totally on shooting,” her mother adds.
“Her determination and zeal were quite impressive. We got some funds together and constructed a temporary shooting range on the roof of our house in Baidyabati. I got tarpaulins and iron rods from the market and had a makeshift range built for her to practise extra hours,” says Mehuli’s father Nimai, a state government employee. “She used to shoot till 1.30 in the morning and we did the assistant’s job, changing the cards which work as the target.
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“I had the Class X board exams ahead of the 2016 national trails in Kerala and I had to stay there for one month in January before appearing for my exams in February. I took my books along with me and prepared for the exams while appearing for the trials. I managed to balance the two well and got through both. My parents are very supportive, giving me the freedom to choose between shooting and studies. There is too much pressure if I continue with the two and so I have skipped the Class XII board exams because of the Commonwealth Games to focus on the sport,” says Mehuli, who stays around 36km away from Kolkata.
“We devoted ourselves for her betterment and put all the available funds to give her the best of facilities and training. We used to accompany her to different competitions and thankfully after she was adopted by Joydeep Sir, the travelling schedule eased quite a bit,” Mitali says about the initial days of Mehuli’s shooting career. Her success in shooting is still of the highest priority for the Ghosh household, as her parents have moved out of their ancestral house in Baidyabati to stay with their daughter close to the shooting range.
Mehuli won the 10m air rifle silver at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and then the Youth Olympics silver in Buenos Aires in October. Her decision to keep shooting as her priority had reaped a rich harvest. “The Commonwealth competition is open and the best shooters go for glory there. The Youth Olympics also has the best shooters from across the world. The competition at the top is extremely tough in both the tournaments and hence cannot be compared,” Mehuli says.
Joydeep Karmakar, the Olympic shooter who is mentoring Mehuli, says she is no more a great possibility or a prodigy, but has now turned into a more mature and consistent shooter. “She is now an Olympic medal prospect,” he says. “She is very special in the way that her perception is very clear and the execution is of high order. She speaks and understands the shooting language at this young age. It is very important for high-level coaches as they very often get stuck with shooter who fails to comprehend some specific terms related to the sport,” says Karmakar, who missed the 2012 Olympic bronze in the 50m rifle prone event by a whisker.
Karmakar, who is also monitoring her progress as the high-performance coach for the Olympic Gold Quest programme, said an Olympic medal is a big possibility as Mehuli’s intelligence and commitment towards the sport is “phenomenal.” He is confident about the fact that she knows how to handle success at such a young age. “She has a big collection of medals which can be matched by a very few shooters of her age in the country and internationally. What she has achieved on her own, no one can claim a share in that, but, as a coach, it is my duty to show her the path that will realise her dream,” Karmakar says.
“Initially when I took up coaching, I got frustrated by the existing infrastructure in West Bengal. When I was a shooter, I did not have the time to look into the dishevelled state of affairs. As a case in point, I was aghast to find out that the rifle I used as a junior shooter is still being used by the club where I practised. It may be a good rifle, but it cannot be a weapon that will remain in use for four decades. You cannot aim high if you do not upgrade your facilities. Mehuli had to fight all these obstacles till I decided to get the best of facilities in the city,” he says.
The Joydeep Karmakar Shooting Academy is where Mehuli is now training to realise her Olympic dream. “I still remember a saying by my father that a good coach is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary for the trainee. My role is similar with Mehuli. I am not a personal coach any more; I am the mentor,” Karmakar says.
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When it comes to aiming for higher laurels, Mehuli says she is quite disciplined in maintaining a routine that will enable her to have consistently good performances. “I start my day at eight in the morning. I get an hour of physical exercise before breakfast and then I listen to some music to focus before I start for the range. I primarily listen to instrumental music and that helps me meditate and calm my mind so that I can perform to my optimum. I have no musician of choice, but prefer international performers to reach that calmness of mind. And when I am looking to relax and unwind, I listen to some pop songs,” Mehuli says about her daily routine.
“I prefer fruits and food with less calories because it is necessary to ensure that the muscles are relaxed when I am shooting. Shooters do not have to be very particular about body weight, but I like to keep a balance. I really have to contain gluttony when it comes to eating. I cannot just go and have fast food whenever I like. It is about control and dedication, of which I am very particular about. The last time I indulged having some putchkas (a variation of pani puri available in Kolkata) was last January. I did not have any competitions around that time. This restriction applies to ice creams and sweets, (too),” she says.
“When I am not in a competition, I practise at the JKSA generally for seven hours from 2pm till 9pm. I have been sponsored an accommodation by The Newtown School, which also houses Joydeep Sir’s academy. My parents often stay with me, but this routine is my own and I stick to it. Good homework is very necessary to keep you prepared. Successful sportspersons have to be strict about their lifestyle,” Mehuli says, showing the fortitude of an achiever. She is also very thankful to OGQ, which “helps me with my equipment, nutritionist and also my international tournament and travel itinerary.”
After Karmakar, Mehuli is the biggest name from West Bengal in the shooting arena, but does she feel alone at the top. “I love to get through obstacles. Life is a boring journey otherwise. I plan in my own, I love my own sport and set my own targets and do not think of what is happening around. I want to win and I am my own competitor,” she says.
But Mehuli’s success in shooting has taken away some joys of childhood. “Growing up at Baidyabati was fun, but as I got in to competitive sport early in life, I miss the normal childhood that others have. I miss my friends and the fun days as my routine prevents me from doing all the childish stuff,” she says.
When the discussion hovers to the quest for an Olympic gold medal, Mehuli says, “Olympic gold is the ultimate aim of any sportsperson. To get to that level, I think I need to be stronger mentally and have the ability to take control of situations. Perhaps a little more experience will take me there. I also need to sharpen my strategies to get to that level. I have definitely reached a level now, but it needs to be taken a few notches higher to be able to challenge the best in the business.” Assessing her progress, she says, “In the recent World Cup selection trials in Delhi, I scored 628.8 and 627. This kind of score will take me to the top eight of any international event.”
Recalling an incident from the recent World Cup, Mehuli, with a hint of pride in her eyes, says: “This year in the World Cup event in Munich, which is called best of all World Cups, I had a bad start and did not get the desired result in the individual events initially. But, on the second day, things turned around as I picked up two golds and shot 639, which really encouraged me. I returned with three golds and a silver to make a fine comeback in the end. This is perhaps one of most memorable comebacks in my career so far.”