Few were convinced when Manjeet Malik decided to set up an archery coaching academy in his village 15 years ago. His family was not happy because Malik’s decision meant three acres of fertile soil would go fallow - to be used as an archery range. Moreover, Umra in Haryana’s Hisar district had never heard of archery. Even Malik, who planned on becoming the academy coach, had never shot a bow in his life.
“At first no one came to learn. When I went with a bow to the field on my shoulders people would joke – shikar karne ja raha hai (He’s going hunting),” he said.
Those taunts have aged as well as milk. Malik, solely by force of will, has turned his academy into one of the hotspots of archery talent in the country. The performances of archers from the academy reiterate that at the National Games.
Of the five gold medals awarded in the recurve archery discipline at the National Games at Sanskardham, four – Sangeeta Malik in the women’s individual category, the women’s team comprising Preeti, Avni Malik, Sangeeta and Bhajan Kaur, the men’s team of Basant Kumar, Akash Malik, Abhijeet Malik and Sagar Sharma and the mixed team pair of Kaur and Akash -- were won by students from Malik’s academy. Another archer from Umra had won gold in the men’s compound event a day earlier.
With the events being telecast on DD National, Malik’s grin, as he posed with his archers on the podium, could be seen by his naysayers in Umra.
“First, they laughed at me. Now they see me on TV so they know I have been successful in my mission. But what is most satisfying is that the same people who made fun of me have sent their children to my academy,” he said.
Malik, a 51-year-old with neatly trimmed grey hair, says he always wanted to be involved with sports.
“That’s in my family blood. My father was from the first batch of wrestling coaches who studied at NIS Patiala in 1961. He studied alongside KD Jadhav (India’s first individual Olympic medallist) and was his friend,” he explains.
His brother, Azad Singh Malik, is also a coach of repute and has trained multiple international hockey players, including Tokyo Olympians Poonam Malik and Udita Duhan.
But while wrestling and hockey were established sports in Umra, archery had never been heard of.
“I also wanted to make a mark in sports but in something other than wrestling or hockey. I had never done archery but I liked the sport. I’d seen it being practised in Maharashtra” he said.
“I’m not an NIS coach. I’d never even shot a bow in my life when I decided I would start training children in the sport. Haryana had no tradition in Olympic archery. We hadn’t won a single national medal when I started,” he added.
As a result, Malik is almost entirely self-taught.
“Archery is a technical sport. People think that I might have picked up something from the internet but there was no YouTube when I started out. I read all that I could and attended seminars to learn more, but mostly I picked it up as I went along. You know how there are doctors without a degree? I was like that. But I had a lot of practical experience just trying different things,” he said.
Malik bought a couple of Indian bamboo bows to start with. Indian bows are built on the same principle as high-end recurve bows with the difference in that their arms are made of bamboo rather than synthetic fibre. This gave him a wider (and cheaper) margin for error.
“Because we started with Indian bows, we were able to experiment. We also went to the nationals and saw how the others were shooting. The kids would act as coaches and teach each other,” says Malik, who now has an NIS-trained coach in his academy.
With no background of success to attract sponsors, Malik paid for those bows, which cost 5,000 rupees apiece, out of his own pocket and his archers had to share them during national meets.
“When we were starting out, I had to pay for all the equipment. I only had a few students and they were children of farmers who didn’t have the money to spend on a bow. Sometimes we had six archers and only two bows. So, after one archer had shot, we’d take the bow to the next archer and give it to him to shoot,” he said.
It was only in 2014, six years after Malik started his academy, that an archer from Umra won his first national medal -- a bronze in the U-14 sub-junior nationals. It was only then that Malik felt he could start coaching kids on the recurve bow.
He bought the first recurve bow in Umra with his own funds.
“In 2014, we had our first recurve archer. We bought our first imported bow then. It was really expensive. It cost 2 lakh rupees. Now it costs 3.5 lakh. We bought it with my money. It was a risk but we didn’t consider it. If you are mad about it, then you just have to do it,” he said.
Financial hurdles in rural areas
With the results showing – Malik says his academy has produced 12 international archers for India - it has been easier to find takers for the sport. But the financial challenges the archers face are never-ending.
“The challenge is that our archers are from farming families in rural areas. There are not many sources of income. The dhanush (bow) costs rupees 4 lakhs. If you travel for competition, it costs money. Every year you have to buy arrows which cost rupees 1 lakh. I don’t have to buy equipment for the children now. Their own parents will do it. They usually take loans and buy it but if they perform well, then they can pay off that money. The government doesn’t do anything specifically for archery but it gives prize money to archers who win medals at the national level. The archers then put the money back into the sport,” he said.
Malik doesn’t charge his students any fee – he has 80, mostly from his village, and a few from neighbouring hamlets -- who practise at his academy for four hours a day. Thus, he is often forced to find ways to cut costs.
“The paper targets which are used in major competitions are usually imported but we just print them out on flex (vinyl sheets). We don’t have the boards to mount them so we use bales of bhusa (cut wheat stalks),” he said.
“All our kids are from farming backgrounds. They don’t have gyms or anything. The exercise they get is in helping their parents in the fields,” he said.
Sangeeta, who won two gold medals in the women’s individual and team events, is a case in point.
“One week before the National Games, I noticed she had come late for the morning training session. When I enquired, she said she was in the fields cutting bajra. She was helping her mother in the fields. Then you have to load fodder for the buffaloes. That’s the kind of fitness work that we do,” Malik said of the 22-year-old Sangeeta.
Defying odds with passion and focus
Archers from Malik’s academy have regularly beaten representatives from more established centres – including the Army Centre in Pune and the TATA archery centre in Jamshedpur. The Tata institute in particular has been the gold standard for producing Indian archery talent. The majority of India’s elite archers, including former World No. 1 Deepika Kumari and Tokyo Olympian Atanu Das, are from the centre.
“The strongest team historically in India has been the Tata team (Jharkhand). For us (Umra) this game was completely new. We had boxing and wrestling but never archery. So, to beat Tata is always the main thing. We don’t have any facilities. We just have a field. Tata has international coaches from Korea and an eight-coach panel. Even the Sports Authority of India (SAI) has many centres in India and many coaches. They have the best facilities and they pay lakhs of rupees to their coaches. But our results are the best. Our kids have been all India champions. This is the truth. We didn’t have money or facilities or history. We just had junoon (passion) and a man me keeda (single-minded focus) that we had to produce the best archers. So far, we are doing that,” Malik said.