One day prior to the trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Jitu Rai was an excited man. The reason for the armyman’s happiness was not because he was sure of qualifying for his favourite event — the 10m Air Pistol — but because his leave had been sanctioned. So, his mind was elsewhere, and as a result, he failed to qualify. Disaster, it would seem. But the 27-yearold eventually made it to the 50m Pistol event and won the gold at Barry Buddon Ranges in Dundee, Scotland.
The past few months have been tough for this Nepalese-born shooter. Living out of a suitcase and in camps, Rai’s life was limited to merely looking at a target 10m or 50m away and pulling the trigger, while trying to stay still. Absolutely still, where even a heartbeat could upset the equilibrium.
A gold, or for that matter any medal, means a lot to him. Yet, a part of him still yearns for a life to simply relax and enjoy the basic pleasures of life — like a break in the hills and look across the paddy and potato fields, where he once toiled hard — or be with his mother at his birth place of Sankhuwasabha in Nepal.
Minutes after he won India’s first gold medal at the 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, he candidly said, “I want to go home and rest.” But then quickly added, “No, I cannot relax. There is still the World Cup finals for me.” That will be in October in Gabala, Azerbaijan.
For Rai, life has been great in terms of medals that have been filling up his modest cabinet, or well suitcase, as he is always on the move. But it is by no means easy, for the hard work it demands.
Yet, when you talk to him — the media descends on him upon his return from a successful sojourn abroad — he understands that he needs to do it for his sport. His smile is disarming and there is something so simple and straight about him that it is almost incongruous with his current status as a sporting superstar.
Rai says his mother does not understand the importance of all that he has achieved. Maybe, he himself does not understand it but he does know that there is more to come. Maybe that is his nature and he admitted that he does little except think about his future shooting assignments.
“I enjoy the company of Pavel sir,” he says, referring to Pavel Smirnov, his Russian coach, who spends most of the time with Rai. “I talk to him and have learned a lot… he has so much to share. I owe him a lot.”
Mohinder Lal, one of the most respected coaches in the Indian team, says about Rai, “Mentally, he is a strong character, probably one of the strongest. Yet there is a part of him that needs to be taken care of because he is very much focused on shooting. Without doubt, he is hugely talented.”
Sports psychologist Vaibhav Agashe, who works with Rai and other Indian sportspersons, adds, “This has been a long season and this gold medal was all about physical endurance and mental strength. He is the strongest shooter we have and part of his training includes cardio training and this has strengthened him.”
Agrees Smirnov, “He has been going on and on. After this, he should opt for complete rest.”
This has been a long season for Rai as it included three World Cup medals in nine days in June followed by the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships and then the Asian Games. Sure, all these medals will bring in a lot of riches in terms of cash prizes. However, the issue that hurt him the most is the apathy of the Uttar Pradesh government with regard to his recognition as a native of the state. The thought of being an alien in his state despite having all the necessary documents disturbed him very much. He even talked of competing for other states, but that may well have been in the heat of the moment. Money and recognition are on their way, it would seem, particularly after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav announced Rs 50 lakh for him.
In recent times, Rai was ranked No. 1 in the 10m Air Pistol and No. 5 in 50m Pistol events, but things were not always as hunky dory as it is today.
He joined the army 11 years ago and that is where he was first introduced to shooting. He was more interested in other physical training than shooting. Somewhere down the line, he discovered he was fairly good at it, but a series of poor performances in early 2007 forced him out of the army shooting camp. He made his way yet again only to be sent back a second time in 2009.
It was only in July 2011, when he won three medals that a new start was made. He was called into the Army Marksman Unit and 2012 happened to be a year of learning, before he was considered for the Indian national team.
Consistent performances in the Air Pistol and Free Pistol events earned him a spot in the Indian team for his first international meet last year in South Korea, where he made it to the final and finished seventh. Subsequent events in the Asian Air Gun Championships in Kuwait, where he won three silver medals, and the World Cup in Fort Benning, made him a regular in the Indian team.
Recalling that period, he says, “That is when I thought I could win medals at top international events.”
A combination of mental and physical strength is a must for a world-class shooter. It is a zone where stillness and the ability to shut out everything else rule. Rai has worked very hard on his fitness. His support team, be it coaches Mohinder and Smirnov, or mental trainer Agashe, all speak highly of Rai and his work ethic. Even the slightest of twitches can affect the shooting posture; neck and shoulders need to take a lot of strain and stress.
The margin of error is small. But then, these shooters are aiming for the bull’s eye, which is barely 11.5 mm in diameter for the 10m event and 50mm for the 50m event.
Rai, a member of the 11 Gurkha Regiment, is a mentally strong person with a sense of fragility due to the expectations that keep piling upon him with every strand of success.
No wonder then, the coaches keep reminding everyone around not to add any more burden on these shooters. They already carry too much of the same and then there is the burden of expectations. With the 2016 Olympics not too far ahead, let us hope that Rai turns up at Brazil minus the baggage of the past.