How Vijay Kumar overcame sleeplessness, torrid weather and elite competition to bag Olympic silver

Vijay Kumar, then considered a dark horse in the Indian squad, competed like a seasoned champion in a nerve-wracking contest to clinch the Olympic silver.

Vijay Jumar poses with his 2012 London Olympics medal.   -  PTI

The horrors of sleeplessness on the eve of a major competition cannot be better elucidated by anyone other than rifle-shooter Apurvi Chandela. A review committee set up by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) post the Rio 2016 debacle found out that Chandela had been disturbed in her sleep after a fresh batch of Indian athletes had arrived at the Olympic Village and was exhausted going into her event the following morning.

Four years ago, at the same quadrennial showpiece in London, another shooter had tossed and turned in his bed the night before the finals even as the weather gods waged a belligerent war outdoors.

“Firstly, I was very stressed. To say, I wasn’t even a bit scared ahead of the big day would qualify as lying. But then yeah, I did get some sleep much later,” Vijay Kumar, the country’s first-ever Olympic medallist in a pistol event (men's 25m rapid fire), tells Sportstar.

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The big-match pressure was not just it. The conditions weren’t favourable either. “It was rainy. It was windy. It was cold. And it would have stayed almost the same for 15 days to come, as had been said by coach Pavel Smirnov. For an Indian, the cold London winds were too much to bear. But the experience of having played a number of competitions in similar temperatures helped,” says the Rashpur-born shooter.

Son of a former Army man, Vijay’s fascination for guns began at a very young age. However, he only took up shooting professionally when he was transferred to the Army Marksmanship Unit, a few years after he joined the forces in 2001.

It didn’t take long for him to establish himself as an ace marksman. 2006 saw him bag two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. He also ended up bagging bronze at the Asiad in Doha the same year. In 2007, he finished second at the Asian Championships in Kuwait. He looked all set to make his Olympic debut at Beijing 2008 when a bout of chicken pox played spoilsport, deferring his first appearance at the Summer Games by four years.

“Any sportsperson if denied an opportunity to perform well due to unavoidable reasons like an injury, mishap or illness will be disappointed. I was heartbroken too. But then, I think we all have to accept and move forward. At least, that’s what I did. I moved on and immediately set 2012 as my next target,” says Vijay.

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A bout of chicken pox ended Vijay Kumar's hopes of competing at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

A silver at the Fort Benning World Cup in 2011 all but sealed his ticket for the flight to 'The Swinging City'.

“The Olympics automatically became very important for me because every other sportsperson aspires to be there one day. To play for the country. I can say qualifying for the Games was, by quiet some distance, the highest point in my sports career,” Vijay said.

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The Indian shooting team had started practising at the Royal Artillery Barracks nearly a week ahead of the showpiece tournament. Vijay says as the big day inched closer his interactions with Pavel doubled.

“As the competition came closer, he started talking to us more. He never said he wanted medals. Pavel always stressed that one must keep doing his or her part and the output will automatically come. Your focus should only be at doing what you have always been doing. No new technique. Any tweak in the technique, last moment, only means added pressure. He kept saying that all of the thousands who come here to participate do not win medals. If you lose out on a medal, it is no biggie. Participating in the Olympics is also a big thing,” he said.

Vijay, in the qualification round finished fourth, shooting 585, to ensure himself a berth in the final. But there was more to worry about than just bettering his position by one to guarantee himself a medal. The International Shooting Sport Federation had changed its rules that year to state that only the scores in the final round would be taken into consideration for the medal tally unlike previously when the qualification scores were added to the final scores. What made it all the more challenging was the elite list of shooters he was about to be up against.

First up was Russia’s Alexei Klimov, fresh from setting a new record in the qualification round. However, the rule change saw him lose a podium finish. Also present was the 25-year-old sensation Ding Feng, the eventual gold medallist Cuban Leuris Pupo and the legendary Christian Reitz, who went on to strike gold in Rio 2016.

“I had to start afresh. Shooting isn’t an aggressive sport. It involves a lot of patience. It always requires you to stay calm and in control of your nervous system. You have to have extraordinary control over your body.”

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After the qualification round, Vijay realised he was out of about five rounds of ammo. This was the time when compatriot Joydeep Karmakar, who was shooting in the 50m rifle prone event on the same day, came to his rescue.

“Pavel came rushing to me just before my shootoff saying Vijay was out of rounds. I opened my bag and gave him all I had after keeping all I needed for my final round,” says Karmakar.

Vijay Kumar was given the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 2012.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

In between rounds, Vijay made sure he kept his interactions to the minimum. “I tried to divert my mind and talk to my coaches. Made sure that my mind and body were relaxed enough. I also ensured I sat comfortably indoors because of the cold. I had to make sure the cold didn't have any adverse effect on my trigger finger. One thing which I kept doing was dry practice. I hardly interacted with the media.”

In the final, if you shoot 9.7 or above it was considered a hit. Each competitor was to shoot a series of five shots within four seconds.

“I kept focusing towards getting a perfect series. There is a technique. You maintain your stance and then you release a shot. My focus was on this and only this. Never looked at the scores or the audience. I just stared hard at my gun,” Vijay elaborates.

After the first interval following an elimination, Vijay was tied at second place with Ding at 16 points. Pupo had established a lead of two. The same trend followed over the next two eliminations – Vijay and Ding level, with Pupo surging ahead by two points. Ding shot a three in the penultimate series to guarantee a silver for Vijay.

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When Pupo shot a four in the eighth series, Vijay knew he had to settle for the silver. But he wasn’t disappointed. “If you are a medallist, you are a medallist. 4th to 10th place may be all the same. But 1 to 3 are different,” Vijay states.

At the medal ceremony, Vijay silently watched the Indian flag rise. “You suddenly become philosophical. You are looking at the Indian flag being raised in a foreign land. What can possibly be bigger than that? I feel happy that our government and my federation supported me. That I could win it for them makes me happy.”

That night, notwithstanding the weather, Vijay had a peaceful sleep.