There is an air of intrigue around Rhythm Sangwan, the newest poster girl of Indian shooting. It’s like there are two distinct dimensions to her character, each in glaring contrast to the other.
On the one hand, she is a chirpy 19-year-old Bollywood junkie who loves to hog on waffles, sketch portraits, and go shopping. She is the life of every party with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the latest movie releases, and wishes to someday tap her feet to a number in a YRF (Yash Raj Films) musical alongside her favourite actor, Hrithik Roshan.
The other personality, however, is of a thorough professional who can be seen at shooting ranges, her eyes transfixed on the target with a strong sense of purpose. This version of Rhythm avoids interaction with anyone but her coaches until she is done with her competitions. Sometimes, she even asks her mother, Neelam, not to attend her matches.
“She has always been like that. We don’t mind. If that helps her get into the zone, so be it,” Neelam had said, seated just outside the admin room of the Madhya Pradesh State Shooting Academy, even as Rhythm’s qualification round during the 2023 Bhopal World Cup was in progress.
Rhythm admits she has always received unconditional support from her family, right from the day she first visited the Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi as a 12-year-old. Neelam used to accompany her to all training sessions, and her father, Narender Kumar, never backed down from providing her with the best facilities.
There have been many instances of parents being hesitant to let their children pursue shooting because of the hefty initial investment. The weapons, ammo, and all other equipment are very expensive. But Rhythm never faced such roadblocks. “With my father (Narender Kumar) in the police force, I was used to being around guns. I wasn’t scared of firearms. I was interested in sports but never really wanted to take them up professionally until one day my parents told me that shooting is a sport as well. When we went to the range, I got really fascinated by it. The sound of guns firing and the ammunition — it all really excited me,” Rhythm says.
The next step was finding a qualified yet amiable mentor. “My personal mentor, Vinit Kumar, had already been an acquaintance of my father. So, things started working out quickly. It was just meant to be.”
Maybe it was destiny after all. Less than a year later, at the 61st National Shooting Championship in Thiruvananthapuram, Rhythm, then a student of the Delhi Public School in Faridabad, bagged three gold medals in the youth, open, and junior team events. She also brought home a women’s team silver in 10m air pistol.
And thus started a journey that has seen the Haryana markswoman go from strength to strength to bring four junior World Championship gold, three senior Worlds silver, and six senior ISSF World Cup medals (three gold, two silver, and one bronze), among many other laurels.
All in less than six years’ time, even though two of those were marred by COVID-19. Those were the toughest months for the pistol shooter. The range was shut, sporting calendars got shredded into bits, and she didn’t have the wherewithal to put up a makeshift range at home. All of which took a toll on her mental health. “I was only doing dry firing and workouts. Also, strength and conditioning... But it was a huge gap because I was doing very well in 2019. Suddenly, everything came to a halt because of COVID-19.”
Through that extended period of lull, there was one person who stuck with Rhythm. “My coach felt and still feels the pain I do. When I win, I think he gets more excited than me. He always has my back. I have seen that people generally don’t stay with you in bad times. But he has always been there with me. He understands me and knows how I think. He is a one-man army,” Rhythm smiles.
Rhythm cannot put her finger on any other specific period when she felt helpless. “The only other tough moments that came along were when I could not fulfil the expectations of my country, parents, and coach.”
When asked if the shock defeat in the World Championship was one of those moments, she laughs.
On October 22, 2022, Rhythm fell just short of creating history in Cairo when she missed the mark on all five occasions in the last series of the erstwhile ranking format. Having qualified third with a score of 587, she was leading the pack of four with 11 successful hits until the third series and had looked all set to qualify for the medal match of the 25m pistol event. What made the loss worse was that she even lost the Olympic quota to Haniyeh Rostamiyan — tied with 11 hits in her respective ranking group — for having a lower score in the qualification round, wherein the Iranian had accumulated 588 points.
“No, there was no malfunction,” she says, clearing the air about a suspected equipment snag. “I was just focusing on the process—the technical aspect of the game—not on the result or anything else. I wasn’t thinking about winning a quota or a medal. If I focus on the result, it generally doesn’t go well.”
Vinit later sat down with her to dissect the proceedings of the game. “’You must be strong,’ my coach told me. He pointed out all that he had asked me to do, but I didn’t. We analysed what the mistakes were. Yes, I was very upset for some time. My coach said maybe I wasn’t ready for the biggest stage. If I had been, I would have been up there,” Rhythm says, recollecting the events from that fateful evening. “But that’s okay. Ups and downs are a part of life,” Rhythm says, indicating she has long moved on from the Cairo episode.
Rhythm goes on to say that she feels the person who values her and extends unconditional support should also have the opportunity to provide his invaluable inputs to the NRAI (National Rifle Association of India), the apex governing body of the sport in the country, as and when the need arises. “The NRAI and HRA (Haryana Rifle Association) have supported me well. Athletes should be encouraged to speak their minds and ask for ideas from their mentors, who have been their backbone since day one. Working together as a team would be a nice way to move forward. Because the ultimate goal is to win medals for the country, not the individual.”
Rhythm was named the Best Young Achiever (Girl) at the Sportstar Aces Awards 2023. She understands that not everybody is lucky when it comes to opportunities. “There are many women who face difficulties in starting a sport, let alone continuing. There is an image that women are only meant to do household chores. I am sure that in certain parts of our society, women are looked down upon. We should support and encourage them to not just pursue sports but also whatever it is that they want in life,” Rhythm says.
Rhythm, although from a different sporting discipline, reveres six-time boxing world champion Mary Kom. Whenever she feels demotivated, she watches the ace pugilist’s Priyanka Chopra Jonas-starrer biopic on her iPad. “The struggles she went through to be where she is now are a story everybody needs to hear. She inspires me,” Rhythm says.
While her idol is already an Olympic bronze medallist, Rhythm is eyeing a seat on what will be her maiden flight to the Summer Games. And hopefully, she would be able to retrace Mary’s steps in Paris and bring back to India a medal, which has eluded shooters since Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang won a silver and bronze, respectively, in London 2012. “I regularly have discussions with Vinit regarding the Olympics, but that is not on my mind right now. For now, I am only focusing on the next World Cup in Baku (May 8–15). I will take it step-by-step thereon. All I know is that 2022 was a great year for me. I won many medals and made the nation proud. When you’re working hard and putting in so much effort, you will see it bear fruit some day.”
Is that ‘some day’ within the next five years? “Obviously, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 are within that timeframe. Who would not want to win an Olympic gold? That has always been the dream.”
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