Manu Bhaker has seen it all – inopportune equipment snags, unbridled success, crushing failures and sometimes unfair criticism. She is only 20.
At an age when most are struggling to figure out the vagaries of adult life, Manu has won 34 medals in ISSF-recognised events (a whopping 25 of them gold), donned the country’s colours at the Olympics and stood atop the podium in the Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics. But the glare of the media spotlight has often put every move of hers under acute scrutiny.
The Tokyo Olympics gave her a harsh reality check as a berth in the final eluded her in all of the three events she took part in. She, by her admission, secluded herself from all and sundry.
After a much-deserved break, she got up to begin anew. There was zero pressure. The angry voices had died down. And the Bhaker of yore was back. She gunned down 12 medals in three competitions - Junior World Championships in September-October 2021, the President’s Cup another month later, and the ISSF Junior Cup in 2022.
However, since that spike, Bhaker has again seen some difficult days. And now for the first time she will not be shooting in the 10m air pistol category at the fast-approaching World Championships, having not been up to the mark in the selection trials. She will only be starting in 25m sports pistol in Cairo.
On Saturday also, she finished outside the medals - fourth - in the 25m sports pistol event of the National Games at the Ahmedabad Military and Rifle Training Association range.
Bhaker is gracious in defeat. As she exited the medal match, she calmly went and sat in the players’ area until the event was over. She then went on to congratulate the medallists – Esha Singh (gold), Rhythm Sangwan (silver) and Abhidnya Ashok Patil (bronze) – with a smile. Later, she calmly waited for the shutterbugs, busy clicking the medal winners’ pictures, to clear the lane so that she could collect the empty Eley shells and pack her equipments. She smiled and posed for numerous selfies before finally reuniting with her mother Sumedha, waiting on the sidelines.
Before speaking to the media, she jokingly bargained for the time she had to spend with the journalists. “ Aap 2 minute bole, abhi 10 kaise ho gaya? Aise nahi hoga bhaiya... 5? Na aapki na meri... chalo 4! (You said two minutes, right? How are you saying 10 minutes now? Won’t happen, brother. Five? C’mon let’s settle for four.)” she went.
And obviously, the topic of Tokyo 2020 was the first thing that came up. And she spoke freely about the changes she had undergone.
“I used to be a bit impulsive, which everybody used to see. I think that impulsiveness is gone and now it is more about ‘if this has happened, I will work on this and in the next competition, let’s see what happens.’”
She also informs she has tweaked her technique. “I have changed technique-wise. I have always hoped for the best and I am preparing for the best, which is the next Olympic Games. (I am a different person) in competitions, (while) testing weapons and everything. Yeah, I am growing and I am working on things.”
But the most difficult of transformations has been that of her ‘frame of mind’. Bhaker says, “The way I take things is quite different now. Either you are negative or you are positive before something. So, that has quite changed. I am learning. I am ageing also ( laughs).”
But how did she manage to come back so quickly from the difficult period with so much ease?
“Oh, that comes with time and experience,” is what Bhaker says, which brings about a distinct whiff of déjà vu.
In May 2019, when Bhaker had a weapon malfunction during the 25m rapid fire final at the Munich World Cup and lost out on an Olympic quota for Tokyo, she broke down and had to be consoled by her coaches. However, the very next day, she booked her ticket to the quadrennial extravaganza with a fourth-place finish in 10m air pistol.