At 14, the word ‘problems’ largely pertains to the ones buried inside mathematics textbooks. And this-or-that choices are mostly confined to cricket/football, BGMI/CoD, DC/Marvel, and the like.
Six years ago, an enterprising schoolkid of the same age was faced with a life-altering problem inside the cabin of a Colonel overseeing an NCC (National Cadet Corps) camp in Bhopal. She was presented with what would appear to be a simple choice on the surface. One, to pursue the sport of shooting and let go of her dreams of becoming an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer; two, to forget the meeting ever happened and carry on with her life.
The officer had, with googly eyes, just seen an unassuming Ashi Chouksey, a novice in the art of shooting, gun down 47 of a total of 50 targets. “I have never seen a child shoot with such precision on the first try,” Ashi remembers him saying.
Ashi, careful to avoid the pitfalls of a rash binary decision, had then gone for the second option. She admits she wasn’t too keen on experimentation back then.
However, when her father Padamkant heard about this, something inside him wanted to find out what the future held. And so, not many months later, he bore a triumphant look when he arrived, waving a newspaper carrying the news of an open selection trial being organised at the Madhya Pradesh State Shooting Academy.
On the day of the event, Ashi accompanied her father to the range on the quaint outskirts of the city. When the results came out, she shared the look of surprise on her father’s face. She had made it, alongside another participant, from the approximately 150-strong field.
Cut to the present, and surprise doesn’t seem to have a bearing on Padamkant anymore as he watches his daughter pick up not one but three medals—two silver, one bronze—from the ongoing Asian Games in Hangzhou. The silver medals were won in the non-Olympic team events of 10m air rifle and 50m 3 positions rifle, while the bronze came from the individual 50m 3P competition. Thus far, this is the highest number of medals won by a single Indian athlete at Asian Games 2023.
“I have always known she is capable of doing great things. This is just the beginning. Her target is the next year’s Olympics,” he puts it bluntly.
The world, though, looks at it through a very different lens for Ashi makes the continental mega-event look easy. Even as thousands of elite athletes from across the length and breadth of Asia are fighting it out to wear a piece of the hallowed metal around their neck, Ashi has not just done it thrice now but has also joked about the medals saying: “They may be almost a kilogram each!”
But she is not one to get bogged down under the weight of these medals, which she proudly wears, or expectations. Instead, she would just use these achievements as stepping stones to realise her ultimate dream - the Olympic podium. For that, she would have to climb past the first rung of the ladder at next month’s Asian Championship in Changwon, a Paris 2024 quota-bearing event.
“It is the next big event for me. I will try my best to get a quota there. So, the grand party will have to wait until then. Of course, it’s a big thing for everyone and for the country, but I just have to focus on my next competition more.” For now, the adventure-seeker in her is happy to explore the streets of Hangzhou with roommate and bestie Sift Kaur Samra, who had earlier claimed the gold medal in the 50m 3P event with a world record score of 469.6.
India hasn’t climbed the Olympic podium yet when it comes to 50m rifle events. While Ashi continues to shape up as a potential challenger, there are some who believe that there are still a few things she needs to work on and fine-tune before taking to the ranges in Châteauroux next year.
“She is very raw but immensely talented. She is on a learning curve. She has her own rhythm and aspects, which are inexplicable right now. But she can be refined to be a world-beater. She is very dedicated, passionate, and has tremendous resilience. She is getting stronger every day,” says Joydeep Karmakar, the one who has come the closest to ending India’s medal drought in the 50m range at the Olympics, finishing a creditable fourth in the prone event at London 2012.
Joydeep has worked with Ashi when he was the national 50m 3P coach and will get a chance to groom her again when she returns to the ranges in Bhopal, where the Olympian signed up as coach three months ago.
MP State Shooting Academy coach Vaibhav Sharma, who has been looking after the progress of not just Ashi but also an Olympian in Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar since the days they weren’t making headlines every day, concurs. “To be sure, she is 2024 Olympic material. I couldn’t say this a while back, but now I can attest to it looking at the recent shift in her temperament. But I can still not say anything strongly about her medal chances. But with a little bit of work, things can change.”
On being asked to explain what he meant by Ashi’s ‘shift in temperament’, Vaibhav said: “There are many instances. 50m 3P is her pet event. But she has learned to balance that with 10m AR. And it is incredible how her accuracy in Standing (earlier a weak link) has gone up manifold owing to the hard yards she has put in in Air (Rifle). Her precision in Air has rubbed off on Standing in 3P. She has always been extremely strong in Kneeling and Prone.”
On Wednesday, it was in fact Ashi’s 196 in Standing, which saw her finish sixth in qualification and enter the final. Her score in Standing was second only to Samra’s in the entire field of 44 athletes.
Ashi was of the same view. She said, “In Air, we hit a lot more inner-10s. Of the 60 shots, 50-plus Xs come easily. When I do Standing here (in 50m 3P), the objective remains the same. The expectation automatically increases, and you tend to push for inner-10s more than you would normally do.”
Vaibhav stopped to remember another incident, which serves as testimony to Ashi’s tremendous grit. “It was around 5–6 months ago when Ashi’s form suddenly came down. But then she met and spoke to me, making up her mind to fight her way to the top. Gir ke sambhalne ki ek alag baat hoti hai (There is something magical in rising to glory once again after having a great fall). When someone gets into this mindset, the rest is bound to fall into place.”
During the final, Ashi had a cushion of 1.1 points before the silver medal-deciding shot, but a horrid 8.9 saw her lose the second place to China’s Zhang Qiongyue. When asked to describe what was going on in her head then, Ashi’s reply seemed to somewhat explain the fighter mentality Vaibhav was talking about earlier.
She said, “Actually, Asian Games is a very big platform. I was feeling a bit nervous. If I had my emotions in check, I wouldn’t have shot the 8.9. But I think I have not done that badly. It was good from my side. Whatever I did, I just tried my best. These are all learnings that will help me do better elsewhere. Maybe at a bigger stage. We needn’t think about the previous shot. We only think about the next shot. It helps to think like that even in real-life situations.”
The ‘bigger stage’ she talks about isn’t that far away. In the meantime, Ashi can only hope that when the sun sets in Paris on a certain day in August next year, Hangzhou’s 8.9 only lingers as a distant dream.
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