China has been a happy hunting ground for Indian rifle shooters, the highlight being a gold medal for Abhinav Bindra in the 10m Air Rifle individual event at Olympic Games 2008 in Beijing. He pushed China’s Qinan Zhu to second place to become India’s first individual Olympic champion. Four years later at London 2012, Gagan Narang shot a bronze in the same event. Bindra came close to a bronze at Rio 2016, watched by training partner and teammate from Athens 2004, Suma Shirur who had made the final then on Olympics debut in women’s 10m AR individual.
Rifle shooters, women and men, made their presence felt in another Chinese city, Hangzhou, during the Asian Games 2022, with medals in four out of four rifle events competed, two each in women and men category, as competitions started. Boosted by this early medal haul, Indian sharpshooters gained in confidence to earn podium finishes till the curtain came down on shooting (rifle, pistol and shotgun spread over eight days). Overall, shooting’s contribution to India’s overall medal tally came to 22 medals (seven golds, nine silvers and six bronze medals).
China is an elite shooting power and to climb the victory podium competing against the host nation sharpshooters is a special feeling. Suma, present as national rifle head coach, watched young India shooters deliver displays resulting in medals, starting with a silver in women 10m AR team and a bronze in women 10m AR individual (Ramita Jindal). India’s third medal at the Fuyang Yinhu Sports Centre was a shot in the arm for air rifle shooting which soared in popularity after Bindra’s shot at Beijing glory.
Rudrankksh Patil, Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar, Divyansh Singh Panwar bagged the 10m AR men’s team gold medal, dislodging China off the perch enroute to a world record 1893.7 pts (China held the previous mark of 1893.3 set at ISSF World Championship 2023 in August). Coming back to the champion team at Hangzhou, Patil scored 632.5, Tomar 631.6 and Panwar 629.6 for a world record effort, pushing South Korea and China to the second and third positions. Tomar’s bronze in men’s 10m AR individual later was the fourth medal in air rifle, replicating Ramita’s effort in women’s individual event.
Both Ramita (part of silver winning team) and Tomar returned back to the village with two medals each, boosting the morale of fellow rifle shooters returning to the competition venue in the following days high on confidence. Ashi Chouksey, part of the silver medallist trio (with Ramita and Mehuli Ghosh in 10m AR women’s team) joined the list of multiple medallists by bagging a bronze in 50m 3P women’s individual event. Ramita’s success on Asian Games debut at 19 says a lot about ability to channel resources, technical and mental, amidst the heat of competition and is cut out for bigger feats. Tomar finished his Asiad spell by winning two more medals in 50M team and Individual event.
Aishwary Tomar shares a bond with Suma Shirur, founder of Navi Mumbai-based Lakshya Shooting Club, as do Rudrankksh Patil and Divyansh Panwar. The world record-setting sharpshooters, emerging talents earlier in their career, had honed their competing instincts over the years at RR Lakshya Cup, an invitation event for the nation’s top 20 rifle shooters organised by Suma to popularise air rifle shooting. The Lakshya Cup’s unique feature is gender-neutrality, in keeping with the founder’s absolute belief in treating female and male participants equally and creating equal opportunity to compete for title and cash incentives standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the 10m indoor range.
Hangzhou double medallist Ramita had taken part in Lakshya Cup 2021, staged at the Kamala Sports Academy’s state-of-the-art range, making a mark by scoring the maximum inner 10s (56). Rudrankksh emerged the overall winner in senior category, earning Rs 1 lakh purse. He was invited to take part on the strength of a silver medal won at the 64th National Shooting Championships, gained from international exposure to be crowned the 10m AR champion in ISSF World Shooting 2022. Aishwary Tomar had bagged the top honour at Lakshya Cup 2019 as an 18-year-old and wore India colours at Tokyo 2020.
Divyansh Panwar lifted the Lakshya Cup in 2018. Incidentally, the 2017 Lakshya Cup champ Deepak Kumar bagged an Asian Games silver in 10m AR at Jakarta 2018. Suma launched the Lakshya Cup in 2008 with a firm idea in mind, of creating another opportunity for India’s emerging rifle shooters to experience the thrill and tension of competition.
Mixed events, featuring women and men rifle shooters participating together is an accepted norm at international competitions under the ISSF. The Lakshya Cup offered women the chance from the launch year itself to aim for the champion tag in the 10m AR individual event.
So far India women internationals Meghana Sajjanar (2016), Shriyanka Sadangi (2022) stood out as number one overall, joining male counterparts in the champions list in the race for the trophy and winner’s purse. Asian Games multiple medallist Ashi Chouksey was a participant in this event during 2022 and had won Bronze medal in 10m AR Junior Category. The RR Lakshya Cup 2023 this year end is the 14th edition and will continue to attract emerging talent in rifle shooting, attempting to display prowess in a competitive atmosphere.
By Nandakumar Marar
Renowned Sports Journalist