Skeet shooter Mairaj Ahmad Khan: Better late than never

Mairaj Ahmad Khan is 40 and is gunning for an Olympic gold in shooting. He had devoted his youth to cricket and had even dreamt of playing in the World Cup!

Mairaj Ahmad Khan... "I am not going to Rio (Olympics) just to participate. I want the gold medal."   -  Sportstar

Manavjit Singh Sandhu has been one of Mairaj's inspiration.   -  K. K. Najeeb

The evergreen Leander Paes won the Olympic bronze in Atlanta in 1996. The tennis ace was 23 then. Weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won an Olympic medal in Sydney in 2000 when she was 25. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, a late-starter, helped India graduate to the Olympic silver in Athens in 2004, when he was 34. Abhinav Bindra became a world champion when he was 24 and the Olympic champion when he was 26 in Beijing in 2008.

The list can continue with Olympic medallists Vijay Kumar, Gagan Narang and world champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu. But to cut the comparisons short, life begins at 40 for Mairaj Ahmad Khan.

After having given his youth to cricket — a national addiction, when he played with Virender Sehwag for Jamia University, and had been a part of the under-19 teams in the Vizzy Trophy and the C. K. Nayudu Trophy — Mairaj Khan chose to shift to shooting, without even realising that it was an Olympic sport.

The strapping Mairaj from Khurja in Uttar Pradesh accomplished what many generations of Indian skeet shooters could not, as he won the Olympic quota place in the high-precision event, in the World Championship in Lonato, Italy in September 2015.

“This is only the first step towards my ultimate goal of winning the Olympic gold. Olympics is unique, and can’t be compared with anything else. When young, my only dream was to play the cricket World Cup,” says Mairaj.

Indian shooting has been doing great for many years, but skeet has been waiting for the big breakthrough, even though Man Singh did very well to shoot 149 out of 150 in becoming the Asian champion in 2011, when he was 23.

“I have been working hard for the last 15 years, under many coaches. I am happy that I did it for Indian skeet,” says Mairaj.

He has been inspired and motivated by the deeds and words of support of many shooters, and they all kept telling him that he would do it.

Mairaj missed the Olympic quota for London, in the Asian championship in 2012, when he shot 119 and the quota went at 121.

He had also shot 121 and 120 in the World Cups this season which were clear signs that he was inching closer to making the breakthrough.

“Coach Falco has been telling me, ‘Mairaj, you are very close, don’t let it go,’” recalls Mairaj.

However, at the crunch, Falco, who had won the Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996, took the pressure away from Mairaj.

After four rounds in the World Championship, Mairaj was on 98 out of 100. He needed to shoot his best to make it to the final or get the Olympic quota. The coach told him to forget about the scores and concentrate on shooting one bird at a time.

“You have done well already. Believe in yourself. Shoot one target. Shoot the high house, shoot the low house. If you think about shooting 25, you will become nervous. Focus on the target. This is not the end. You have one more chance in Kuwait,” the coach told Mairaj and this had a big impact on the shooter.

“I was never so relaxed in all my life, including the national competitions and the selection trials. I went through the last round like a normal routine. High house, low house, singles and doubles. ‘Do it one more time. This is just a training round for the next competition, I told myself,’” recalls Mairaj, about the experience.

He did shoot 25, but a scoring error saw him credited with only 24. There was a protest, but nothing came of it. Mairaj took it in his stride. “Whatever God does, he has a reason,” he opined, after placing seventh.

“It was a clear round for me. I had not seen the scoreboard. Had I seen it and protested immediately, it could have made me tense. The mistake happened on station seven. We had to come back to station four. It was crucial. I could have lost focus and missed some birds,” said Mairaj.

Falco has been a phenomenal champion even though he could not follow up on the gold in the next four Olympics in Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London. He has been a five-time World Cup Final champion, 10 times World Cup gold medallist and five times European champion.

“I am not going to Rio to just participate. I want the gold medal. This quota place has made me believe in myself so much better. The technical support of Falco is huge. What he has done to improve the quality of my shooting, no one else has. He is from the south of Italy, Capua. He has six different ranges there, with different backgrounds. We trained for more than two weeks with him before the World Championship,” says Mairaj.

Falco, who joined the Indian camp in 2013, made technical changes in Mairaj’s shooting and that meant an initial dip in scores. He shot 115 in the national championship and did not make the finals. He was out of the national team for about a year. But, Mairaj was convinced that he was doing the right things and stuck to the challenge.

“Sometimes I used to think that I had chosen a wrong sport. Maybe, I should have taken trap or double trap. It could have been easy to qualify for the Olympics. But, I tell you, there is no easy way, no short cut,” says Mairaj, as he reflected on the tough times that he had to endure.

“Mansher Singh has been shooting for 35 years. Manavjit has also been shooting for so many years, training away from home for so long. He got the gold in the World Championship. To me, he is the most deserving shooter for an Olympic medal,” says Mairaj. The six-time Asian champion Manavjit, who has two World Cup gold medals apart from the World Championship gold, could not strike his best form in the last three Olympics.

“Rajyavardhan Rathore, Manavjit, Mansher, Anwer Sultan, they have all been my inspiration and motivation. Moraad Ali Khan has been a great support. I speak to him very often. He is basically a humble guide and a gentleman. He makes deep observations within a short time. Ronjan Sodhi keeps telling me that I should start winning,” recalls Mairaj about the overwhelming support from the fraternity that included Bindra, Narang and Vijay Kumar as well.

After having gone through a series of coaches, including Zhang Shan, the lady who beat the men in the Barcelona Olympics for the gold, Mairaj is now with Falco.

“The Chinese are very hard-working people. I won the Commonwealth Championship in 2010. Zhang Shan brought the best out of me. She used to say, ‘Mairaj believe in yourself. You have a very good routine, good physical fitness. You don’t smoke, you don’t drink. There is no way you can miss the target.’ She was more like a mental coach than a technical coach,” he remembers.

Cricket’s loss has been shooting’s gain, even though Mairaj grew up dreaming about representing the country in the cricket World Cup.

“When I saw the long queue in cricket and the politics, I could not cope with that,” he says.

Mairaj loves to follow cricket. He is also a huge Roger Federer fan and raves about the recent U.S. Open final.

“Roger Federer has motivated me. When I see his level of fitness at 33 and 34, I feel young. Had he been 26 or 27, he will not give the other guys any chance. Three sets are ok for him, and he can win. Not five sets. Novak Djokovic is very determined and very strong, because he is from Serbia,” he says.

Mairaj’s family is into farming, and he manages to earn a bit for himself through guiding youngsters.

“Coaching helps me. You talk about technique and basics. When you shoot, subconsciously, it all comes up. It is in the mind. You can’t miss the basics,” he says.

He is very particular that we mention about Anil and Dharmender, the guys operating the machines at the Dr. Karni Singh Range in Delhi and who have put in a lot of effort in helping him train, many times in very hot conditions.

“We sometimes fight, and are frustrated also. But we are all happy most of the time, working together,” Mairaj says.

Mairaj is happy to be in India, even though he loves training in Italy, the heaven for shotgun marksmen.

“What we lack in our sport is the winning belief. We dream about going to Canada, Australia or America. India is a great place and an easy place to live. We have everything. In other countries there are major problems,” he feels.

The recognition for the sporting stars in the country fascinates Mairaj, and he hopes to emulate them some day. “If you win an Olympic medal in India, you are a Rock star. In America, you may still be a nobody!,” he says.