It was only in February 2017, once he had completed his final semester of law school following an engineering degree, that Abhishek Verma was finally able to find time for what was a fledgling sport shooting career. Verma began shooting entirely by chance when he encountered a range near a gym he was working out in back in 2015. It was a hobby, he says, although one he clearly had talent in.
But when Verma was finally done with his studies and decided to give the sport a shot, he was already 28 years old. Far too old, he might have thought, to have a serious chance at shooting professionally. "At that time if you had told me I would have won a medal just in the nationals, I would have been thrilled," says Verma.
What a difference a couple of years makes. Verma says this over the phone from Rio de Janeiro. It's just a few hours since he's won a gold medal in the 10m air pistol event at the ISSF World Cup. It's his second medal of the same colour just this year - he's already won gold at the Beijing World Cup in April and earned a quota place for India at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. His gold medal in Rio puts him in elite company. He's only the eighth Indian ever to have won two gold medals in the 31-year history of the World Cup.
Verma got his first glimpse of the spotlight with a bronze medal in the 10m air pistol event at the Asian Games, but his story was overshadowed by the even more remarkable tale of the 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary winning gold in the same event. Since then, though, the two have almost matched each other shot for shot. Of the four World Cups that have been held in 2019, the two have claimed every gold on offer.
And while Chaudhary is still considered one of the most prodigious shooting talents from India, Verma -- who despite being nearly twice as old has about the same shooting experience -- is right alongside him.
Verma is still getting used to this world. "I turned 30 at the start of the month. Most shooters my age have had a lot of experience already but I'm still really new in the sport. I'm still at a stage where everything feels fresh for me. Every competition I go to is a learning experience," he says. Even his shoes have to be thought over with each competition. At the Asian Games, Verma was wearing regular jogging shoes because that was what he felt the most comfortable in. At the Munich World Cup earlier this year, he had upgraded to the hard soled weightlifting shoes that provided him a more stable base. It's only at Rio that he's switched to the Sauer brand boots specialised for pistol shooting.
Verma is grateful not just because the shift paid off, but because it tells him he is on the right track. "Every medal is important not just because it shows you have won but because it tells you you have done something right. With every one, you realise you are stronger in one more area so you think, 'I have to get another one now.' Before I won my first gold in Beijing, I was shooting in the final in a series of 10 shots. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to be at the end of each series. My coaches have told me to try and shoot every shot as a single one but that never really happened until Beijing. Wahi khud ko realise hone laga (That's when I started realising this on my own)," he says.
"In the past I might have rushed my shot but this time I took my time. I went back to how I shot in training. I stabilised myself and focussed once again and only then took my shot" Verma on his final shot in Rio
The Rio World Cup, on the other hand, was about sharpening his shooting in the qualifying stage. He qualified in fifth place with a score of 582, as compared to a personal best of 585 in Beijing, but he's more than happy with that number. "I don't think I've ever shot as well in qualifying. My technique was perfect. I was able to shoot each shot with almost no pressure and complete focus. That's the way I want to shoot in the future too and I took what I learned into the final too," he says.
All that learning came in handy for the last shot of the competition. Verma had shot a poor 9.6 in his penultimate shot, cutting his lead to just .1 over Turkey's Ismael Keles. "In the past I might have rushed my shot but this time I took my time. I went back to how I shot in training. I stabilised myself and focussed once again and only then took my shot," he says.
What resulted was a near-perfect 10.7, more than enough to win gold.
Verma says the medal only whets his appetite for success. "You think once you have won a gold, why can't you win another," he says. But at that moment he also remembers just how lucky he is to be where he is. "The biggest high for me is simply that I get to shoot. For others it might be a profession but for me it was a hobby that somehow I've become really good at. It's incredible that I'm simply getting a chance to play. Any medal I get is a bonus," he says.