Amanpreet Singh couldn't stop smiling. As he beamed ear to ear, it was hard to believe that Singh had just been on the wrong end of one of the comebacks of the shooting World Cup' currently underway in Delhi. In the men's 50m pistol competition, he had led right through qualifying. In a contest where scores are measured to a tenth of a point, he led by nearly nine after the second round of the final. His rivals may as well have packed up right then. Not Singh's Indian teammate Jitu Rai though.
For the second day in a row, Rai, fought back from the brink of elimination. On Tuesday, he had won bronze in the 10m air pistol. Today, he did better winning gold, relegating Singh to a silver. It didn't matter that the sport is expected to be axed from the Olympic program, though a 1-2 finish for India would certainly add grist to that mill of discontent.
Singh's lead was cut steadily as the final progressed but right until the very end it was far from unhealthy. With three rounds to go, he led Rai by 5.7. With two remaining, he was still 4.2 ahead. He was .3 in front before the final two shots were fired. Yet, after the final cartridge was fired, and Rai raised his fists in celebration, Singh broke out into a big goofy grin.
There was good reason behind it. Going into the World Cup, not many expected the 29-year old to win anything. Most eyes were on teammate Rai. The latter was a world championship silver medalist and a multiple time world cup medalist. Singh's progress, on the other hand, seemed to have stalled. He had made his India debut only three years after picking up a pistol on his father's suggestion; on the police gun range at Phillaur, Punjab.
Despite that initial promise, success had been fleeting as a senior - with a 50m pistol gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Championships remaining his best result. He had finished fifth at the 2010 Asian Games and wasn't picked for the 2014 Asian or Commonwealth games. Indeed, prior to the New Delhi World Cup, Singh had last represented the country at the 2013 edition of the tournament in Munich.
Those were difficult days, admits Singh. "Coach Pavel Smirnov introduced certain changes to my action that were technically correct but hard for me to perform. I wasn't getting the results that I wanted and I decided to return to Phillaur and train by myself. It was hard because I didn't have any idea what I had to do. I thought, perhaps it was a fitness issue, so I worked on that. Then, I decided to go back to how I was shooting originally. I used to go through my old shooting notes to see what I was doing when I was getting results easily," he says.
Finding his rhythm again was a slow process. Multiple Commonwealth Games gold medalist Samaresh Jung, who had been a senior on the Indian team when Singh made his junior debut, helped out. "He was a little down. I didn't do much. I just kept telling him to believe in himself," Jung says.
In Delhi, though, it seemed the old demons were back, after Singh failed to make the finals of the 10m air pistol. Singh admits confiding to his teammates about his worries. "Only yesterday I was telling Jitu and Omkar Singh that I had played my 21st World Cup event and still hadn't even reached a final," he says.
For a long part on Wednesday, it seemed that the many years of toil on the circuit might pay off in the most unbelievable way possible for Singh. However, with six of his final seven shots scoring less than 9 points, he opened the door for teammate Rai to step in and pocket a medal that seemed elusive for long.
Rai, though, having made a habit of swooping away with a prize at the last moment, says he was expecting to do so all along. The free pistol is an event in which I will always believe I have a chance to win a medal. Even the slightest mistake will cost you badly. Even at the (2014) Asian Games, I was trailing until the final shot before my opponent shot a score of 5. So I just make sure to fight hard until the last minute because you never know what could happen," he says.
As such, Rai probably couldn't have had a better tournament. Apart from his bronze and gold, he also won the 10m pistol mixed gender test event while partnering Heena Sidhu. Singh, though must believe, at least in terms of personal significance, his medal is equally important. "Free pistol won't be part of the Olympics anymore but it will be part of the Asian and Commonwealth Games. For me, gold would have been nice, but for a medal to come at the World Cups after such a long time is very special" he said.