Saurabh Chaudhary blanks distractions to shoot for glory

Saurabh Chaudhary celebrates after winning the final round of 10m air pistol event during the ISSF World Cup at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi. PTI Photo/Arun Sharma

Samaresh Jung isn't a big believer in home advantage. "It's a disadvantage if anything," he grumbles. It doesn't really seem like there's much for him to complain about on Sunday evening at the Karni Singh shooting range, though.

The coach of the Indian pistol shooting team is coming out of the finals hall where 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary has just put on a masterclass. His finals score of 245 is a world record. He's crushed the field by 5.6 points. It's a performance that's won him a World Cup gold on debut and a quota spot for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

But Jung isn't just being contrarian. "Shooting as a sport is hard enough to do in training when you can barely hear the sound of your own pistol. It's a lot harder when there are all the distractions that come with competing at home," says Jung.

Shooting at home isn't easy and it certainly must not have been for Chaudhary in New Delhi. For one, a sizeable contingent from his home village of Kalina near Meerut had shown up to see the local boy compete. Chaudhary would say he hadn't known they would be coming but he found out soon enough. After shooting a perfect 100 in his second series, the stands where they stood erupted in whistles and cheers. At least one shooter on the range turned back to see what the commotion was. Jung grimaced noticeably. "Arre yaar, why would you start cheering for him after his second series, he's still got sixty other shots to fire," Jung would say.

Chaudhary too noticed them and it affected him. "He took his time to take the first shot of his next series. He took the pistol out and then he placed it back down. So he definitely got distracted," says Jung.

Not that it made much of an impact. Chaudhary picked up his pistol once again and cracked out a score of 99 in his next series. He eventually made the final in second place.

The finals, of course, are another matter. Jung knows it isn't just technical skill that matters there. "Shooting in the finals isn't for shooters, it's for the audience. The crowd can have a good time. But it's very hard for the shooters. You don't have the luxury of waiting for the crowd to stop yelling. You don't have any option but to shoot when you have to," he says.

Demir Vekic knows this too. "I had watched yesterday's final [won by India's Apurvi Chandela] so I knew just how loud the crowd could get. But I didn't expect them to be as loud as they were. It was like a football match in here. Finals are hard by themselves. You know you are competing for an Olympic quota spot and a World Cup medal. But this was something else entirely," says Vekic, who took a distant silver.

Chaudhary might not have competed in this sort of atmosphere before, but few would have doubted he would be able to deal with it. Ever since his debut in the Indian junior team in 2016, he's proved to be something of a final specialist. Prior to New Delhi, he's competed in nine international tournaments, made the final in eight and won seven, including the Asian Games gold medal where he beat four-time Olympic Champion Jing Jong Oh.

His exploits have already earned him the respect of his peers.

"I'd heard of him. I've seen his scores and it's gold, gold, gold. So of course you want to know who this guy is," says Vekic.

Vekic and the rest of the Chaudhary's six rivals in the finals would find out just that. The finals are where Chaudhary's strengths are amplified.

"Everyone gets distracted. That's just human nature. In the qualifying rounds it doesn't matter because you can take your time with your shots. That's not possible in the finals. A lot of shooters use different methods to break that moment of distraction. Saurabh gets distracted too. It's rare, but there are moments in training where you see that he is getting irritated. But he has the ability to pull himself back into focus very quickly. That's a quality I've seen in just a few shooters," says Jung.

Chaudhary credits his calm to his practise of yoga and there are others who say his youth has shielded him from the self-doubt that plagues older shooters. "I've shot high scores when I was his age but I wasn't anything like him. To perform like that in that environment is something else," Vekic says.

Where the loss of focus causes his opponents to slip up, Chaudhary might well have been shooting on auto. The noise of the crowd, the World Cup gold or the chance left hand in pocket, he would pick up his Morini pistol, stretched out in front of him, bring down the barrel to bear on the target, squeeze the trigger, glance at the electronic display to confirm his score and return the gun to the table. "Once I picked up the rhythm, I don't let go of it. Bas pakad ke chalte jaana hai (Just have to hold onto that rhythm)," he will say later.

"Once he enters that state where everything starts flowing, there's nearly nothing that can take him out of it," says Jung.

Chaudhary had secured the lead by the first series of five shots and steadily increased the gap with every subsequent shot. He shot just three scores in the nine ring compared to nine by second-placed Vekic and 13 by China's Pang Wei, who took bronze. His place in Tokyo confirmed, his opponents are still coming to grips with just what it will take to shake him.

Will the prospect of an Olympic medal do it? Few would want to bet on that.

"We know he is something to watch for. To win like he did is just incredible. A gap of one or two points is okay. Five points is something else. He's a really solid shooter. Just a really remarkable kid. It's going to be tough with him at Tokyo," says Vekic.