Apurvi Chandela comes close to perfection en route to World Cup gold

PTI Photo/Manvender Vashist

The margins in Apurvi Chandela's choice of sport -- the 10m air rifle -- are minute. The target she's aiming at, the '10 point' ring, is about five millimetres across. Hitting it just once is a daunting task, even under favourable conditions. And it was nothing like that at the Karni Singh Range in New Delhi in the final of the women's 10m air rifle event at the ISSF World Cup on Saturday.

That, though, didn't stop Chandela from coming as close to perfection as she ever has.

She hit the inside of the littlest of rings each time she squeezed the trigger in the finals -- 24 straight times. When counted down to the decimal place, it totaled a world record score of 252.9, more than enough to earn Chandela her first gold at a World Cup.

It's a performance that's all the more remarkable when you consider the kind of strain an athlete like Chandela shoots under.

For one, there's simply the fact that she was shooting in the finals of a World Cup. She later admitted to being nervous. An understatement. "The heart rate of a shooter in the finals of a shooting event to spike to around 180 beats per minute - about the same as running a sprint," explains her coach Rakesh Manpat. Chandela isn't running a sprint of course. She's standing as still as she possibly can, squinting through the scope of a rifle at the little black dot some 30 feet away. The weight of her gun, just under five-and-a-half kilograms, isn't making things easy either.

"When you are shooting, you can see it bouncing in your hand between each pulse of blood through your wrist," says Manpat. For the projectile in her gun to go where she wants it to, Chandela must squeeze the trigger between heartbeats. Because she needs to be so precise, the trigger on Chandela's gun is particularly sensitive. Its pull weight is electronically set at 20 grams - about the weight of four sheets of copy paper.

Behind her, the crowd is hollering and hooting.

And just to ramp up the pressure there's the fact that she's shooting next to some of the best in the world. On her left is the reigning junior world champion Zhu Yingjie. To her right is the Asian Games champion Zhao Ruoju and -- until Chandela makes it her own in a bit -- the World Record holder. She's in peak form, too, having shot a world record score in qualifying.

Under this sort of strain, it doesn't take a lot for it all to go wrong. And Chandela has seen it go wrong. Last year was all about that. She made it to the finals of the World Cups in Guadalajara and Munich, at the Asian Games, and the World Championships - finishing outside the medal bracket each time.

Particularly crushing was her fourth-place finish at Munich where she had all but won her maiden World Cup gold. With a comfortable lead, she was cruising towards the finish line when, inexplicably, she shot 5.9 - an irrecoverable error that led to her finishing outside the medal tally. Manpat tries to make sense of it. "It could be anything. If your palms are sweaty, you might simply be trying to grip the rifle a little harder and without realising put a little pressure on the trigger. And before you know it you have fired," he says.

While botches like the one in Munich are unexpected, it's almost a certainty that at least one shot will miss the 'ten' ring. And that's really all the opening one of those relentless Chinese shooters need.

Yet the mistake never occurred in New Delhi. Chandela's lowest score in the final was her very first shot of 10.1. It put her at the bottom of the eight finalists -- but that was the only time she was in that position.

As her scores rose steadily, so did she. After ten shots, she was in fourth place. After 15, she was joint second, .6 of a point behind the leader, Zhao. It was still a sizeable lead but the Chinese girl made an inevitable error. She shot a 9.9, her only sub-10 score of the final. Next to her, Chandela shot a 10.6 - one of 18 shots she made above a score of 10.5. That gave Chandela a .1 lead.

From then on, it was Zhao playing catch-up, but Chandela didn't give her a chance. It wasn't that Zhao was shooting poorly -- her total of 251.8 would have won her gold in the final of two of the four World Cups last year - it's just that Chandela was operating at a different level on Saturday.

While she made it look effortless, there were hundreds of hours of practice behind her performance in the finals hall. She started putting in the work in training that aspect of her game in the middle of last year, not long after her bizarre finish at Munich.

For nearly two years until then, her focus had been on the qualifying part of her event - something she had considered essential after she failed to advance to the final of the 2016 Rio Olympics. "Apurvi had not been able to qualify for the final at Rio and that really shook her up. So our first priority had been to work on that aspect of her game," says Manpat.

Training for the finals was an entirely different proposition. "Shooting qualifying is all about correcting your technique. You have sixty shots with plenty of time so being technically proficient is the key. But the finals is about how you handle pressure. It's about your mental conditioning, and also how you physically manage to shoot with your heart rate being as high as it is," says Manpat.

There's plenty of work that's gone into it. "It's a long progress that I have been working on, but mainly there's a lot of meditation that I do now," Chandela says.

She credits another factor for her improved performance - the fact that the 10m air rifle event is among the most competitive for Indian shooters. While Chandela might have won an Olympic quota following her fourth-place finish at the World Championships, there are many claimants to that ticket. At New Delhi, Chandela didn't even have the best qualifying score among Indian shooters. Her total of 629.3 was second behind Mehuli Ghosh's MQS score of 631. With a younger crop of Indian shooters chasing fast at her heels, Chandela has had no option but to push herself even further.

"All of them (juniors) coming up (are) really good. I have to push myself. I look at it in a way that I am being motivated. I can't settle down at any score. I can't take any satisfaction from it. That's actually a good thing for me to stay motivated," she says.

While her World Cup gold will give her a bit of breathing space for the moment, Chandela won't be resting any time soon. Having come close to perfection on Saturday, she insists she wants to get even closer to it. "I am glad it worked out, but there's a lot more to work on, a lot of competitions ahead," she says.