It is easy to lose your way inside the sprawling 2,300-acre campus of the University of Hyderabad. With a humble layer of verdigris eating into the painted letters, it is easier to miss the metal signboard pointing towards the Telangana Rifle Association Range, roughly a kilometre from the main gate.
Housed within this very complex is Olympic medallist Gagan Narang’s shooting academy, Gun For Glory (GFG); its entrance something straight out of the sets of the horror flick, Crimson Peak.
A yard in, the sound of pellets crashing onto electronic targets and a flex banner confirms you are at the right place—the 10m range.
“She is on her way,” one of the coaches at the institute informed Sportstar.
Minutes later, the spluttering sound of an engine came to the ears as an auto-rickshaw slowly made its way inside the gate. Just as the vehicle halted in front of the range, a familiar voice rang: “ Arey, kyamon aacho bawlo?” (Bengali for “Hello, how have you been?”).
A beaming Mehuli Ghosh, with a large check-in trolley and rifle case, greeted this reporter. “Sorry, was doing my laundry, but left it midway and rushed. I hope I am not that late,” she hurriedly slipped into an apology.
It was hard to tell that that 23-year-old was a World Championship, Commonwealth Games, and Youth Olympic medallist. Although arguably one of India’s best bets for a medal in the upcoming Asian Games and next year’s Olympics, Mehuli had no airs and graces.
The arrival of Mehuli, GFG’s brightest, saw the academy’s employees spring into action. Chairs were quickly arranged, an air cooler was dragged into the range, some benches were removed, and a framed vinyl was hurriedly put in the background for the scheduled interview.
Amid the hasty preparations, a number of junior shooters hovered around Mehuli. She smiled and hugged a few of them before politely proceeding to interact with everybody. Some of them even asked her to inspect their weapons, perhaps in an effort to pick her brain by getting into a conversation with her.
After Mehuli started shooting in 2014, she bloomed away from the media spotlight under the guidance of seniors like Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil in the national team set-up. A few years later, it would seem life has come full circle. She is presently one of the seniormost shooters in the Indian rifle squad.
“When I was there with Apurvi and Anjum di, they said it’s just a matter of time before all the youngsters come up (the ranks). It doesn’t feel like that yet. We are all very good friends. I am there to help them (the juniors) out. I just follow the legacy. It’s not about me being a senior, asking my juniors to treat me differently. We help each other out. On off days, we even go out together,” Mehuli said.
Tilottama Sen, 15, another Bengaluru-based Bengali shooter on the national rifle team, also seeks Mehuli’s help whenever she has doubts. “I have told her I am always there if she needs any kind of assistance,” Mehuli said.
Recently, Mehuli and Sen registered stunning performances in ISSF’s biggest event, the ‘World Championship-All Events’ final in Baku. While Mehuli clinched her maiden World Championship medal—a bronze—Sen went on to finish fourth.
Their respective scores after 20 shots were 208.8 and 208.4. The slim margin of 0.4 points eventually saw Sen lose the Olympic quota and a podium spot to Mehuli. In the pre-Tokyo 2020 cycle, though, Sen too would have been eligible for a quota place.
Mehuli’s quota, however, is finally here after years of toil. It feels all the more special, especially after having frustratingly shot in the MQS (Minimum Qualification Score) section for a major part of the previous Olympic cycle.
“The entire year, I remember, I shot MQS, and it wasn’t bad (sic). All matches went very well for me, if you check the scores. But it does feel good now. The scores, in general, have increased so much nowadays. Even with a 630, you cannot be sure to make the final,” she said.
Mehuli had topped qualification at the Baku Worlds with 634.5, a national record.
Although the quota is in the bag, there is no room for complacency, for the Paris berth belongs to the country and not the athlete. Additionally, the newly introduced Olympic Selection Trials (OST) make matters a bit more complicated. The OST—a series of four competitions to be organised in 2024—will see the value of a quota reduced to one ‘bonus point’.
Now, the mean figure of the top three scores in OSTs will be considered towards the Final Average Score (FAS), which will determine qualification. Simply put, a shooter with a quota will have a head start of a mere 0.33 points per trial. Although, the new rule only means Mehuli cannot rest on her laurels, she feels it will be rewarding for shooters, who head into the Olympic year in fine form.
“It (OST) is not that bad because I feel whoever is in their best form should go to the Olympics. I mean, someone who was shooting 630-plus a year ago may not be shooting that well the next year.
“Because it’s a long time, ups and downs are bound to happen. So, you just have to plan (accordingly)… This is where rest and recovery become important so that you don’t burn out when the Olympics arrives,” she said.
All things considered, it is still not every day that you win a quota for the Olympics, the biggest multi-sport event there is. It has done Mehuli’s confidence a world of good.
“It feels really great that I finally achieved the quota for Paris 2024. I have been looking to win this for so long, and it is great that it has come with a bronze medal at the World Championship, which is such a prestigious game. I’ve been working really hard with my coach, Bibaswan (Ganguly) sir.”
Ganguly has been Mehuli’s coach since her junior years, first at Joydeep Karmakar Shooting Academy, following which the duo jumped ship to be at GFG Hyderabad.
Talking about Ganguly as a mentor, Mehuli said, “He is very strict, on and off the lane. He looks after every small detail. And it’s not only about technicalities. Even how my lifestyle is, how everything is. He just pushes me so much to do better and be disciplined. He is very helpful. Sometimes, he jokes around too.”
It is Ganguly, under whose tutelage Mehuli, even when subjected to pressure situations, has become a tough nut to crack. A case in point was the InterShoot in 2019, when, having begun the qualifying round with an unheard-of 3.4, Mehuli showed tremendous grit to not only make the final but also collect a gold medal.
“Pressure is what makes the game more interesting for me, so I always like it. It pushes me, makes me more focused, and brings out the best in me. So, I am still training to do much better under pressure. I’m working with my psychologist (Kriti Monga) so that I can be mentally stronger,” Mehuli said.
And it is not just Monga and Ganguly who Mehuli credits for her achievements. “The entire GFG team has helped me a lot. When I came here, I remember I wasn’t shooting well. I wasn’t near the India team. But here, they have always been up for any kind of help. From improvisations on my rifle to giving me unrestricted access to the range, it all just gets done in a jiffy.
“They have 20 lanes of electronic targets here, and I can train on any lane I need. And there are good shooters here. So, I can train in a competitive ambience as well, which is very important. I can also train all over the country. There are so many GFG ranges. Recently, I went to the ones in Chennai and Pune. Every time you go to a shooting competition, you can train at a different range. That helps you get used to shooting in different conditions. Training like this has really been helpful.”
Although Mehuli continues to shoot for the stars, the recent retirement of her father, who had a temporary job with the West Bengal State Government, came as a rude shock. Shooting is a highly expensive sport, with the cost of the rifle itself going up to 2.8-3 lakh rupees.
The fact that she has had to move to a different city to pursue her dreams doesn’t help her cause either, with monthly rents for her studio apartment in Manikonda Jagir skyrocketing each year. Mehuli isn’t even a part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme’s (TOPS) core group yet.
“I have been away from my family for the past two years. I haven’t started any jobs right now. I am there in the TOPS scheme, but not in the core group. I am there in the development group. And I have OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest) supporting my shooting side only. Staying here and our lifestyle - we have to go to the gym, have proper food, and maintain a proper license - after a certain point, it is expensive. So, maintaining that gets really difficult. But I’m somehow managing for now.” ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ is a maxim Mehuli staunchly believes in.
At this moment, Mehuli’s phone buzzed with a text. The lockscreen showed a picture of the World Championship medal.
“You do realise this wallpaper may require changes soon, right?” Sportstar asks, hinting at the upcoming Asian Games and Paris 2024.
“Yes, it will happen. I am giving it my all,” Mehuli smiles.
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