One of India's strongest Olympic medal hopes, ace shooter Manu Bhaker feels preparations "cannot get better" than the ongoing training-cum-competition tour of Croatia as she works on her consistency ahead of the Tokyo Games.
Thirteen Olympic-bound pistol and rifle shooters are currently training in Zagreb after having participated as guest invitees in the European Championship recently in Osijek. They will also compete in the ISSF World Cup, also scheduled in Osijek from June 22 to July 3.
The Croatia tour was arranged after the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) realised that it was not possible to hold camps in India amid a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The tour is very helpful. We are well looked after, our health and fitness needs are taken care of and, most importantly, we are getting to train at a very good shooting range and with some good competition as well," Bhaker told PTI from Zagreb.
"So, I believe it cannot get better, leading up to the Olympic Games," he added.
When Bhaker says she wants to live up to her own expectations, the remark can be interpreted as a burning desire to win the gold medal, and it has often panned out that way in a stellar career seeking its zenith in a few weeks' time.
In an ominous sign for her challengers ahead of the Tokyo Games, the champion Indian shooter says she wants to avoid being weighed down by expectations.
"I just want to meet my own expectations. I am not thinking about anything else but focusing on giving my best for India in the Games." The 19-year-old pistol ace will enter Tokyo as one of India's biggest medal hopes having won almost everything one can after a sensational start to her career.
According to the champion shooter, many of her teammates stand a chance of finishing on the podium in Tokyo and given the Indian shooters' form in recent years, she is not far-fetched in her thought.
"I don't think I am the biggest medal hope... that is unfair. In our shooting team itself, I don't see anyone who is not the biggest medal hope. Then there are world class athletes in other sports as well for example badminton, weightlifting, wrestling, archery, boxing and the like," she said.
Bhaker produced a strong show in the Minimum Qualification Score (MQS) section of the women's 25m pistol event at the European Shooting Championship last Tuesday, finishing ahead of her compatriot Rahi Sarnobat in a 1-2 result for India.
The shooter is now trying to work on her consistency in training, which, if achieved, would reflect in competitions as well, she said.
"Yes, I had good scores (in European Championship) but I feel I need to keep improving, it's a constant process. I am working to get more consistent in training first and then it will come in competitions as well.
"I am enjoying my training and everyday I have something specific to work on, so I am happy with the way things are progressing." Unlike in the previous Games, the number of coaching staff has been reduced for the upcoming Olympics because of the pandemic. The role of coaches can never be underestimated, so does she think it will matter much in Tokyo? "They have always been there in some form or the other for all these years and I am sure they all will be there even this time when I am shooting in Tokyo," she said.
"Rules are for everyone and I am sure those responsible for implementing them for India will do their best to ensure they are implemented, keeping the interest of athletes in mind," she added.
Bhaker has been selected for three events in the Olympics, scheduled to be held from July 23 to August 8.
"I have always shot three events in all the world cups and other competitions like world championships so there's nothing different. I am just focusing on doing my best in every event and I am used to working and competing like this." She will be fielded in both the women's 25m pistol alongside the experienced Rahi Sarnobat, and in her pet 10m air pistol event with Yashaswini Singh Deswal.
Bhaker will also represent India in the mixed team 10m pistol along with Saurabh Chaudhary.
Finally, she is excited at the real possibility of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) going ahead with the Tokyo Games, which was pushed back by a year in 2020 due to the pandemic.
"We are here because the Olympics are happening... The Games are the most important in the life of an athlete, yes, and if it can, it should be held."
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