Fan trumps idol as Om Prakash soars, Jitu stumbles

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When Om Prakash Mitharval began competitive shooting three years ago, Jitu Rai was the reigning pistol king. The former world No.1 had already won a World Championship title and four World Cup medals apart from top podium finishes at the 2014 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games.

What started out as reverence of a fledgling shooter for an accomplished champion soon morphed into a friendship over training camps together, sharing rooms during tournaments and just being fellow army boys who had taken to shooting for Olympic dreams.

On Tuesday, when Om Prakash climbed on to the podium at the World Championships in Changwon, Korea for a historic gold medal, Jitu, who had finished a poor 17th, was in the audience smiling back at him.

"A medal at such a massive stage is definitely special," Om Prakash says. "But I wish Jitu too had finished on the podium with me. It would have felt even better." That did happen five months ago at the Commonwealth Games, where Jitu won a gold and Om Prakash a bronze medal, with a Games record and qualification record respectively.

Of course, the 50m free pistol event itself has been scrapped from the Olympic program which means there are no quota places to be won. The medal, though, still carries heft since it's the first time ever that an Indian pistol shooter has won a World Championship gold.

At the outset, the primary challenge is to get Om Prakash chatty and animated about his journey in the sport, the medal itself, what it means to him and all the paraphernalia that goes into the making of a medal-toting shooter.

Om Prakash may have won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games and scored 564 points to top the event in Korea on Tuesday, but words, like many other shooters, aren't his comfort zone. He uses them with the tightest of economy and minimum spill of emotion.

The 23-year-old's home in Sihori village in Sikar district, Rajasthan, is abuzz with an endless train of guests and sweets since news of his medal broke this morning. His father is a farmer, and mother a housewife. No one in the entire family has ever played a sport at the competitive level.

"Unke liye yeh bahut khushi ki baat hai ki main desh ke liye medal la paya (They are overjoyed that I could win a medal for the country)," he says. Five months ago, there were similar scenes of celebration after he had won a bronze at the Commonwealth Games.

Posted in New Delhi as a sergeant in the Rajputana Rifles regiment, the YBCs (young blood competitions) conducted by the Indian army to identify talented recruits helped him discover his passion for shooting beyond the call of duty.

For Jitu, the sight of Om Prakash on the podium took him back in time and even offered him a mild reality check.

"Four years ago, I had qualified for the Rio Olympics with a silver medal at this same competition, the World Championships (in Grenada)," Jitu tells ESPN.

"Today, I'm packing my bags and getting ready to catch the flight back home. It just shows how much the competition has grown and how much more I need to improve."

Weather conditions were far from ideal on Tuesday, with overcast skies and mild showers gate-crashing the competition. But Om Prakash hung on. "Baarish, badal aur baaki shooters, sabhi ko maarke usne jeeta hai (He's beaten the rain, clouds and the entire field of competitors to win this medal)," says Jitu.

Dubbed among the toughest shooting events and a frustrating one to master, targets have remained unchanged over the years in the 50m free pistol. Unlike most other events where tied records have gotten targets to be made smaller, in the 50m free pistol, it is incredibly hard to attain perfect scores.

At this World Championships, Jitu hasn't qualified for the other event - 10m air pistol - that both he and Om Prakash also compete in, but he reckons his 'brother' will more than just do well.

"This time we didn't share a room because his schedule was different from mine. Agar free pistol mein gold la sakta hai toh 10m mein bhi pakka gold jeetke, Olympic quota leke aayega (If he has won a gold in free pistol, I'm sure he'll also win a gold in the 10m air pistol and return with an Olympic quota)."

What about competitive feelings? None, both vouch.

"Shooting is so individual and internal that it's just about how well you shoot in your lane," Jitu says. "It's you against you. No one else."

Struggling with a recent dip in form which saw him failing to qualify for the Asian Games, Jitu is now looking to take a step back from the overkill of competitions and recover before mounting attempts at winning an Olympic quota place in the remaining tournaments.

In this climb uphill, he has just found a new spur in a medal he didn't win.