As India's shooters add to their medals, one question: Where's Saurabh Chaudhary?

Saurabh Chaudhary with his medal after the 10m air pistol men's final at the 2018 Asian Games. AP Photo/Vincent Thian

On the fixtures page of the Hangzhou Asian Games website, the start list of each discipline is accompanied by three big numbers: World Record. Asian Record. Games Record. On the page for the men's 10m air pistol finals is this: Games Record: 240.7 pts (IND) Saurabh Chaudhary, Palembang, 21 Aug 2018.

For three years, anyone with even a passing interest in shooting knew his name. It had all started at the Jakarta Asiad in 2018, when Chaudhary, then 16, set that Games record. It was his first ever senior international competition of any kind, and he calmly shot his way to gold against a stacked field that included the likes of pistol shooting great and double Olympic Champion Jin Jong Oh.

A few months later he won his first ISSF senior title, the 2019 Delhi World Cup, this time setting a (then) World Record of 245.0, and beating another former Olympic Champion, Pang Wei, to gold.

And that was just the beginning. Having won six golds and one silver in the nine junior ISSF meets he'd taken part in, having won Youth Olympics gold, he set about dominating the senior field. By the time of the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021, he had added a World Championship gold and silver and seven World Cup golds (plus two silvers and two bronzes) to his kitty. He was in his own league.

At Tokyo, in his pet men's 10m air pistol event, he topped the qualifying round (breaking the world record for good measure). Then, in the final, he started slow and finished seventh. It wasn't something he was used to. When Saurabh Chaudhary competed, Saurabh Chaudhary ended up on the podium.

Soon, he disappeared from the sports pages too.

He'd pop up now and then, but they were brief interludes. A gold medal at the 2022 Cairo World. A national championship gold in June 2023. But the metal didn't seem to carry the same aura.

And as he faded from memory, one question started cropping up: "Where is Saurabh Chaudhary?"

His sudden and steep loss of form came partly from the shooting set-up looking to dim the spotlight on shooters, especially the young ones, who had dominated World Cups leading to the Olympics and then crumbled on the biggest stage. Partly from Saurabh only qualifying for one senior and one junior World Cup final in that period. His win at the national championships didn't mean much either because it was his only win in six of these nationals that had been held through the year. Overall, he finished eighth.

In between those reminders, came the dark moments. In a recent interview with The Bridge, Saurabh would say that the Tokyo Olympics hadn't affected him, that he had moved on just as he always did; but the results were what the results were. Not good.

Finishing 30th at the Rio World Cup. Not making the cut for the World Championships squad. Finishing outside the top-100 at a national championship. Trying, and failing, at the non-Olympic 50m pistol event. A 34th-placed finish in a trial for World Cup places.

During this period - between Tokyo and Hangzhou - he's had a major part of his life turned upside down. As a young boy, Chaudhary would cycle tens of kilometres to go and train for hours with coach Amit Sheoran. The coach had overseen his rise from promising teenager to world champion till they split. It was an ugly split, with Saurabh reportedly claiming Sheoran had "used his name" to collect money from the NRAI as cash rewards. Sheoran would hit back later, telling the Hindustan Times, "My doors for Saurabh are shut completely and forever."

Whatever the reasons behind this, it could not have been easy for a young man whose life revolved around one thing, shooting, and the man (or people) instructing him about it. Reticent and withdrawn, even by the standards of the very quiet shooter's crowd, and used to a set schedule, a set plan, this would have been quite the shock to his system.

Speaking to PTI earlier this week, former junior national team coach Jaspal Rana asked where his coaches were, where those people were who were "trying to get close to him and take credit for his success." He asked, "What has the federation done for him all this while?" and then said something that had a sad ring to it. "I don't really know what he is doing right now..."

A world-beater at 16 and a fading star at 21 is not a good look for anyone involved. The federation has some of the world's best talent coming up through its well-established youth pipeline, but what's happening to Saurabh ought to serve as a warning -- it's not just the getting there that matters, it's the staying there. They have to place as much importance on the support system as they do the manufacturing-of-talents one.

This is not to say Saurabh Chaudhary won't fight his way back up to the top, either on his own or with the system's backing. He had parachuted into unprecedented success and stayed there before this drag-down. This is the first real period of his life where he's not found success just by willing it into reality. He's fighting back, as that June 2023 national gold showed. And you'd bet he'd keep at it. It's just what he does.

'Where is Saurabh Chaudhary' you ask? At a shooting range somewhere, head straight, left hand in pocket, right arm steady and unwavering, hoping the answer to all that ails him lies 33 feet from his barrel.