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India's top pistol shooters likely to find themselves without their coaches in Tokyo

File photo - Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary compete in the 10m Air Pistol Mixed Team event final in the 2019 ISSF World Cup, New Delhi. PTI Photo/Arun Sharma

In a bizarre scenario, India's top pistol shooters - the country's most likely Olympic medal-winners - will be without their coaches from now till the start of the Games in Tokyo. While the shooters will be in Croatia for the next two months, for a tournament and subsequent practice camp, their coaches will remain in India.

The shooters include Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma, expected to be among the medals in Tokyo; the coaches are Jaspal Rana, Ronak Pandit and Samaresh Jung. While there appear to be compelling reasons for the shooters to be in Croatia, including the heightened health risk in India and superior training facilities in Croatia, the absence of their coaches in the crucial period before the biggest event of their careers could have consequences.

The country's shooting squad leaves for Zagreb on May 11 for an extended preparatory camp until the Olympics. The coaches had backed NRAI's earlier plan of setting up a bio-bubble camp in New Delhi over the team shifting base to Croatia.

Once the latter was finalized by the federation, the trio found themselves out in the cold. "We've been sent mails by the federation thanking us for our services," said one of the coaches, "so it's perhaps fair to presume that we're not needed anymore. Anyway, if we are out of the equation for the next two months, it'll perhaps be no better than traveling to Tokyo as spectators."

Speaking to ESPN, National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) president Raninder Singh noted that a "reassessment" will be done and the pistol shooters will be consulted at a later date on whether the three coaches are required to fly in for the Games. Of the 15 shooters traveling for the Games, Chaudhary is seen as the brightest prospect for an individual medal in the 10m pistol event. The faith is backed by his consistent scores and the habit he's made of medaling at almost every World Cup since 2019. Bhaker will compete in three events - 10m air pistol, 25m pistol and 10m air pistol mixed team (with Chaudhary) in Tokyo.

The mixed pairing of the teens has been extremely successful so far, winning the gold medal at multiple World Cups. Just two pistol coaches - Pavel Smirnov and Ved Prakash - will be traveling to Zagreb. In addition, seven rifle coaches, four physiotherapists and two physical trainers too will make the trip.

The team, currently gathered in Delhi, will fly to Tokyo directly from Zagreb, five days before the Games. "The coaches in question didn't want to be away from their families at this point, so we respect that," Singh adds, "But we still have to think of the rest of the team. Though we'd initially decided to camp in the capital, we realized that it's a huge risk given the worsening virus scenario. Despite our best efforts, there was a bio-bubble breach at the World Cup and also the para shooters, who recently held a camp in New Delhi, reported around 4-5 positive cases. To protect our shooters, we have to get them out of here. There's no other option."

The original idea was for the entire team to be stationed in New Delhi, have the range sealed off to outsiders from May first week, the facility sanitized and to kick off the camp later in the month. Stocking up on a few emergency Covid supplies like oxygen concentrators and spare cylinders too was discussed. The argument put forth by the pistol coaches was that if a serious health emergency arose in the families of those in the squad, being based in the country would be an advantage. A section of shooters too, it's learnt, were not in favor of traveling abroad.

"We should not abandon family and run away from reality at a time like this. This is an extraordinary circumstance," said one of the pistol coaches who's not traveling with the squad. A foreign coach, however, it is learnt, took strong exception to the proposal of the squad staying back in India, given the current situation.

The mounting caseload in the country, particularly in Delhi, and a scary precedent of bio-bubble breach had NRAI changing its mind too.

At least six shooters tested positive during the World Cup in New Delhi in March this year and three Olympic-bound shooters - Chaudhay, Deepak Kumar and Rahi Sarnobat did so immediately after. The latest in the squad to contract the virus is 10m rifle shooter Apurvi Chandela, who is currently recuperating at home in Jaipur.

She will undergo an RT-PCR test on May 8 and join the team along with her private coach Rakesh Manpat, if her result returns negative. If it remains positive, they will join the squad at a later date. The Croatia-bound group, who are currently put up at a hotel in Surajkund, Faridabad, took the day off from training on Thursday to make a trip to the VFS office for visa formalities and later got their vaccine shots. The federation will be coordinating with the Indian embassy in Zagreb for athletes who are due their second dose next month.

Apart from the obvious advantage of distance from the spiraling virus situation, Singh offers that in Zagreb, Indian shooters can train on advanced laser targets similar to the ones used in Tokyo. While laser targets are self-illuminated, roll targets, like the ones used at the Tughlaqabad range in Delhi have spotlights above them. "It can make a big difference, especially in 10m," offers a rifle coach who will be accompanying the team, "It affects the alignment of the weapon with the target. Also, weather is another factor. Draining out our rifle shooters in the Delhi heat over the next two months before leaving for Tokyo didn't seem like a great idea."

The team will fly out by a special chartered plane on May 11, serve a seven-day quarantine on arrival and then participate in the May 20-June 6 European Championships in the Minimum Qualification Score (MQS) category (won't be eligible for medals).

In addition to the European Championships, Osijek will also host a World Cup from June 22-July 3, ISSF announced on Friday. The tournament, which will include individual, team and mixed team events in rifle, pistol and shotgun, will throw open another competitive opportunity for Indian shooters camping in Zagreb.

Croatian shooter Peter Gorsa too has been pitching in with efforts, coordinating with local authorities on arrangements for the visiting Indian contingent. Gorsa was one of the two foreign shooters who'd tested positive during the World Cup earlier this year in New Delhi. It is understood that Indian food is being arranged for the team during their stay in Zagreb, especially for the quarantine period. Food menus from a couple of Indian restaurants in the Croatian capital have been forwarded to the team's sports nutritionist consultants.

"Moving to a country with lesser cases will put our shooters at ease mentally and they will at least have some sort of freedom," Singh adds, "It's unfair to ask the kids to train the whole day and then have them to stay put in their 10x10 rooms the rest of the time. We would have had to do it for over two months straight had we gone ahead with the Delhi plan. Even without having to look at this year's IPL example, I'm certain it's the right call. We can't help it if a few don't agree."