Pistol shooter Manu Bhaker’s life, in the recent past, has been riddled with countless moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. There were times when she found herself floundering at crossroads, the rest of the journey fraught with obstacles. The voices of innumerable naysayers, urging the 21-year-old to give up on her dreams, kept ringing in her ears.
But the unassuming Bhaker refuses to be daunted by the odds. She has fought tooth and nail every time, with every fiber of her being, to reclaim her place among the elite.
Saturday wasn’t different. Bhaker, standing outside the final hall of the MP State Shooting Academy in Bhopal with Sandra Reitz and Co., was trying to work out a possible schedule to go horseback-riding with the German contingent at the nearby state government-run Equestrian academy.
“It is her happy place. She often visits the race course when she wants some time to herself,” Ramkishan, Bhaker’s father, says. Bhaker had just won her first ISSF World Cup medal in almost two years. The previous one, a silver, was won in Osijek on June 26, 2021.
For a change, Bhaker was all smiles, an image that had mostly disappeared since the Tokyo debacle. As the Indian team returned empty-handed from the Olympics, Bhaker, who had been one of the top draws, had to, often unfairly, cop a major chunk of the blame. And of course, the off-lane drama that involved her coach only broke her further. All that, though, is in the past, something Bhaker doesn’t like to dwell on. But the fact that it did affect her to an extraordinary extent was evident in her performances. The Bhaker of yore, who used to win medals for fun, had disappeared into thin air.
She, though, never stopped trying. “I never stopped practising although there were ups and downs and the times were rough. I had waited,” the eight-time World Cup gold medallist says.
And only now did her perseverance pay off, as she emerged triumphant in an ISSF World Cup for the first time since returning from the Asaka Shooting Range. The colour of the medal was bronze but Bhaker was satisfied. Her triumph, though modest in the greater scheme of things, has a significance far beyond its apparent value.
It has taken two years, but what one may only assume now as Bhaker’s return to form is only good news for the sport in the country. “ Kehte hai na ki sabr ka fal meetha hota hai (They say good things happen to those who are patient)... Hope this is a sign of better things to come. Shouldn’t be a one-off thing,” Bhaker said moments ahead of the victory ceremony for the 25m sports pistol event in Bhopal.
She is honest when she says the pressure on her was immense during the medal match, which saw Doreen Vennekamp of Germany win the gold and China’s Du Ziyue bag the silver. Bhaker says, “I love World Cups in India. People come out in huge numbers to cheer for us and I wanted to give something to them in return at least. The pressure was a lot in the final. More than the pressure of playing others, the pressure of playing in front of your own people is there. That’s a different kind of pressure. It makes me happy to see that the sport is growing so much.”
To Bhaker, Tokyo is now nothing more than a lesson. The learnings have helped her hit reset on a number of things on many occasions. “There have been changes but not so much,” says the 2018 Youth Olympics gold medallist. “Small things, really. Like timing and all. The coaches suggest these and monitor. Honestly, whatever the coaches ask us to do we follow the same during the matches as well. The coaches are very supportive. Whenever you require something they all are always there to guide me - Munkhbayar Dorjsuren, Ronak Pandit, Samaresh Jung - they are all very experienced. I am glad they are here to guide me.”
The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), in the aftermath of the Olympic disappointment, has now acquired the services of Dr Pierre Beauchamp, a former McGill University varsity hockey player and coach. Beauchamp, the high-performance director of the Indian shooting side, commands whole teams, each specialised in a different discipline of the sport, namely pistol, rifle and shotgun. On his role, Bhaker said, “The HPD supervises everything. If any athlete requires any specific thing, he is always be there to help us psychologically or strategically. He also monitors every move of an athlete, whichever direction they go in.”
Amid all the excitement, Bhaker hasn’t lost track of issues that need to be addressed. During the 10m air pistol qualification round at the same competition, she shot 568-19x to finish 16th. In the third series, she shot four 8s and three 9s to manage a mere 89. “I definitely need to work more on 10 metre air pistol as well. I think not a lot of things are wrong, but there are minute details, which we will focus on in the next camp and training periods,” she says.
She may be committedly working towards the gold in Paris 2024, but her aim is to check all the boxes en route to the French capital. “I am eyeing each and every competition and not just one in particular. It is because each competition counts. If I improve with each event, I will end up doing better.”
Bhaker’s return to winning ways is a symbol of hope, a beacon of inspiration for all who aspire to do great things. Bhaker’s ultimate weapon isn’t the pistol she normally wields. Her greatest strength perhaps lies in her undying hunger to succeed.