Once unable to stand for long with troubled back, Arjun Babuta outguns Olympic silver medallist

Arjun Babuta overcomes spinal issues, overhauls food choices on way to shooting World Cup success.

Arjun Babuta poses with the gold medal.

Arjun Babuta poses with the gold medal. | Photo Credit: Twitter

Arjun Babuta overcomes spinal issues, overhauls food choices on way to shooting World Cup success.

From struggling to stand straight for even 20 minutes without collapsing until a few years ago to outgunning Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Lucas Kozeniesky, Indian shooter Arjun Babuta has started to deliver on the promise he showed in the sport as a teenager.

Babuta beat US’ Kozeniesky in the 10m Air Rifle final to win his first senior ISSF World Cup gold medal at Changwon in South Korea on July 11. He added the men’s team gold to his tally three days later.

The twin gold medals for the 23-year-old are a reward after fighting through years of trying to fix a troubled back. What’s more, he has also had to change his diet completely to eliminate foods that don’t sit well with his body. 

In 2018, Babuta started suffering from bulging discs at multiple points along his spine. Around the same time, he also developed an intolerance towards gluten and lactose. All of these problems cropped up just as he made his maiden senior World Cup final appearance that year. Till date, he is unable to relish even home-cooked chapatis, rice, and curries.

“I was shooting pretty well in 2018. But around the middle of the year, I started suffering from injuries and health problems. I was very young and didn’t know what to do. My complete diet chart changed after that. I took support from the nutritionist OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest) offered. They modified supplements and gradually things started improving.

“My muscles had become weak and the injury was the worst thing. After several scans, I finally came across Dr. Narkeesh from Patiala, who treated my injury in 2019. I lost all hope, but my parents believed I could get better,” says Babuta.

His recovery sessions went on for the next five months and he focused on getting his strength back. COVID-19 upended the plans. The pandemic struck just as he got working on his posture. During the lockdown, owing to a lack of competitions, Babuta participated in a few online tournaments. At one of these events, organised by international marksman Shimon Sharif, Babuta first clashed with Kozeniesky. He lost.

During the coronavirus downtime, many shooters competed from the comfort of their homes in makeshift lanes to get the feel of a tournament without travelling to ranges. The scores on the SIUS screens (the monitors used in shooting to display targets and scores) were then shared with the organisers via video conferencing platforms.

“I focused a lot on my technical issues during the pandemic. I experimented because it seemed like the right time. In Changwon, I was basically repeating what I had already done. So, I enjoyed the process and wasn’t scared (of Kozeniesky) at all. I was very confident this time,” says Babuta.

The Jalalabad-born athlete made a comeback to the Indian team in 2020. The next year, he registered 630-plus scores in all six national competitions he featured in to climb to the top of the standings in India. “I was hoping for an Olympic qualification but then it was too late. The selection criteria didn’t help,” he says.

Generally, 630 out of a maximum achievable score of 654 (10.9 x 60 competition shots) in 10m Air Rifle is good enough to help an athlete make an eight-team final. In Tokyo 2020, the last athlete to make the cut had a qualification score of 629.2. In Rio 2016, it was 625.5.

Babuta, hopeful of earning a call-up for the Rifle/Pistol World Championship in October, started shooting when he was 12 years old. The journey started when his father read an article about an athlete, whose name Babuta doesn’t remember now, winning multiple medals in shooting in a local competition. “We had just shifted to Chandigarh then for my education. My father researched and found contact details of the local shooting range. There we got the number of Col. J.S. Dhillon. Abhinav Bindra (India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist) sir had started shooting there. They showed me a rifle. I was enthusiastic about weapons and jumped when I saw one for the first time. I was so happy,” he says.

Babuta’s father, a businessman, continued to encourage his shooting, even as his mother, a Punjabi author, stressed he should concentrate more on his studies. “I started training on the streets in the extreme heat as well. My father used to put a target on the wall and measure the 10 metres from where I shot. I think all of that has started paying off. And it’s not just my hard work. It’s my parents’ hard work, my coach’s hard work, my sponsors’ hard work,” says Babuta, who has been training with Deepali Deshpande since 2015.

Babuta is sponsored by SportsApp. “They have helped me with a lot of endorsements. It’s good to be working with their young team,” he says.

Neeraj Chopra, the college senior and inspiration

Babuta is pursuing a post-graduation course in mass communication and journalism from Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar. He got his undergraduate degree from the DAV College in Chandigarh. In fact, javelin star Neeraj Chopra was his senior. “He is an inspiration to all Indian sportspersons, isn’t he? We can learn so much from him. I have heard so many good stories about him from (fellow shooter) Anjum (Moudgil). She is a mutual friend.”

Neeraj, who will be in action at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, will then participate in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham starting July 28. Babuta says it is disappointing that shooting isn’t a part of the CWG programme anymore, although it has fetched the maximum number of medals for India so far – 135. “All shooting athletes feel bad about it. We were prepared to do well this time as well. In 2026, I hope shooting gets included. But I really wish all the other athletes good luck. I just want them to bring as many medals as shooting does (laughs).”

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