Top shot Abhinav

Abhinav Bindra with his parents.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Abhinav Bindra battled back pain and a world-class field of 122 shooters from nearly 100 countries to emerge the BEST MARKSMAN in the 10-metre air rifle event at the World Championship in Zagreb, Croatia, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

At 17, he was the youngest shooter at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and missed the final by just one point. At 23, air rifle ace Abhinav Bindra is a world champion. He set out as an early teenager to be an Olympic champion and picked up one of his grandfather's rifles while his friends were busy enjoying life. The goal still remains, firm and clear as it ever was.

Abhinav's father Dr. A. S. Bindra, a shrewd businessman, had earned enough for his son to have merely pursued education and sought the pleasures of the world. But Abhinav chose the painful path to glory. Dr. Bindra decided to support his son in living his dream and built him indoor ranges, including an air-conditioned 50-metre range in Chandigarh.

Abhinav battled back pain and a world-class field of 122 shooters from nearly 100 countries to emerge the best marksman in the 10-metre air rifle event at the World Championship in Zagreb, Croatia. In 70 shots he missed the bull's eye only five times. More importantly, when he required a 10.4 with the last shot of the final to win the gold, Abhinav was close to perfection and came up with a 10.7 to win the ultimate prize.

Abhinav went into the final as a leader with 597 out of 600, the same as two others, Alin George Moldoveanu of Romania who ended up with the silver, and the renowned Jozef Gonci of Slovakia, who eventually missed a medal by 0.1 point. He shot eight 10s in the final and one of them was a perfect 10.9, his seventh shot. Abhinav had the best last two shots of 10.5 and 10.7 among the whole lot, which helped him clinch the gold medal. "It was my day and I had worked hard for it," a modest Abhinav said.

The triumph lit up an otherwise bad season in which Abhinav had finished 27th and 42nd in two of the World Cups in the run-up to the World Championship. He was battling a lower back pain, a muscular problem that was threatening his shooting career. He had practised hard at a young age when his body was not ready to take the load. He was brave in the face of adversity. He chose to take one final shot before shelving his rifle for three or four months in order to focus on rehabilitation. "I had blocked it out," said Abhinav, revealing his ability to keep the disturbing factors out of his mind and focus on the task at hand.

It has been a tremendous journey so far for Abhinav, and he has understood the ups and downs of sport so well that the results do not matter much to him any more. "All these years I did not win. I always wondered what it would take to win. Now, I have won and it is no big deal really. I have realised that there is hardly any difference between the first place and the eighth place. It just depends on how things fall into place on a given day," said Abhinav.

Yet, for all his undisputed mastery of the sport, Abhinav did not have much to show at the world level before this triumph barring the two bronze medals in the World Cups in Munich in 2001 and 2003. Of course, he held the world junior record for quite some time to assert that he was the best young talent in the world. Yet, there was no doubt in the minds of the people who followed the sport closely that Abhinav was champion material.

Even Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the double trap silver medallist at the Athens Olympics, categorically mentioned at the press conference after being crowned with the olive wreath that Abhinav would definitely be a world champion some day.

Very early in his international shooting career, Abhinav understood that he had to be tough mentally to be a champion at any level. Thus, all along, he has been mastering the mental aspect even as he was fine-tuning the physical and technical sides with the perfection of a master craftsman.

Thus, as much as he went to top class coaches around the world like Gaby Buehlmann of Switzerland, Abhinav went to the Olympic and World champion, Lanny Bassham, in the US for mental toughness. When Bassham presented Abhinav his book `The Mental Management System, with Winning in Mind' a few years ago, he wrote on the first page, `To Abhinav, future Olympic champion' before signing it for him.

Now at the height of his career, Abhinav has to be away from his rifle to undergo a five-hour rehabilitation programme every day to strengthen his problematic back. He is not perturbed. "It is a blessing in disguise. A down period is a must. It will help me rekindle the hunger for shooting," said Abhinav. The rehabilitation is a tough exercise. It involves two hours of swimming, one hour of strengthening exercises, one hour on taps machine and an hour of massage.

Abhinav intends to indulge in his favourite pastime, oil painting on canvas, and be adequately creative to paint ten of them during the rehabilitation period. In his close circle, there is a big demand for his paintings.

He would also be assisting his father in the business. After all, Abhinav has studied business and marketing at the University of Colorado. He is not in too much of a hurry to know whether he would be in a position to compete in the Asian Games at Doha in December. "I can't be certain. I just have to wait and see. If I am not able to, I just have to accept it," said Abhinav.

One thing is for sure. Abhinav still stokes his passion and is gunning for the Olympic gold, though he does not want to add to the pressure of expectations. "My goal is to improve my performance, my technique, my execution while under stress. That is where the real satisfaction is, the real joy. I have the Olympic goal before me and I have the luxury of working on this for two years. When I concentrate on the process, the performance will be taken care of," said Abhinav. "I believe in destiny. If I am destined to win, I will. If not, life goes on. The real joy and satisfaction is in the journey, knowing that you put in everything."

You cannot ask for a better attitude from your world champion.