Veteran Tejaswini Sawant nears unfulfilled Olympic dream

Tejaswini Sawant won silver in the 50m rifle prone event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP/Getty Images

In the bunch of Olympic hopefuls straddling teen years with doughty ambitions, Tejaswini Sawant is something of an oddity. She's 39, picked up a firearm when most members of the current squad weren't even born, has weathered the rigors that come with a lengthy competitive career in the sport and continues to haul hopes of beating her own best scores.

Much like the young brood of Indian shooters she's surrounded by though, Tejaswini has an unfulfilled dream - an Olympic appearance. Scratch that. A maiden Olympic appearance. On Saturday, that dream flashed brighter and looked closer than ever when she grabbed an Olympic quota by making the finals of the women's 50m rifle 3 positions event at the Asian Shooting Championships in Doha. Five out of the eight finalists had already booked Tokyo quota places earlier, which left the three other finalists from Japan, Thailand and India to earn their spots.

"I was just there shooting like I would in any other competition," Tejaswini tells ESPN, "It was only when I heard the announcement after I made the finals, did I realize that I had won a quota place. Bas jo kaam karti aayi hoon itne saal, usi ka fal hai shayad. (It could be the result of all the hard work I've been putting in through all these years)".

For her coach Kuheli Ganguly, all of it was an eerily familiar setting. In 2012, ahead of the London Olympics, Tejaswini blew her chance to win a quota place after finishing 28th among 43 shooters in the same event at the same competition, venue and city. The Asian Championships at the Lusail shooting complex in Doha, with Olympic quota places on offer, has stayed unchanged. This time though, while all of it was unfolding, Kuheli was in India, and not in the stands in Doha, chewing at her fingernails.

"We have been wanting it, yearning for it, but all these years it's escaped us," Kuheli says in reference to Tejaswini's sore luck with Olympic quotas earlier and could almost be mistaken for speaking of unrequited love, "Somewhere this had lodged itself in her mind and she was fighting it too. She managed to hold her composure remarkably well today (Saturday), not too excited and neither too low and was just the perfect balance to be able to shoot confident scores."

Tejaswini reached the final at fifth position after shooting 1171 in the qualification round, where every shooter has to fire 40 shots in the kneeling position, 40 in the prone position and 40 in the standing position within a time limit of 2 hours and 45 minutes.

In the finals where every shooter can fire up to 45 shots, Tejaswini missed out on a medal, finishing with an eventual fourth place and a score of 435.8. She was third following the second series but fell behind in the later attempts. She had some compensation coming her way later in the day with a team bronze in the women's 3 positions event.

Tejaswini credits much of her longevity to her kin and Kuheli. She speaks of the latter almost in the same breath as her family. They struck a friendship while being fellow shooters at national camps and in 2008 the former slipped into the role of a coach on the Kolhapur-born shooter's insistence. Tejaswini won her first World Cup medal, a bronze, in Munich in a year's time and in 2010 became the first Indian female shooter to win a gold medal at the World Championships with a score of 597/600.

In doing so, she equaled the 1998 world record set by Russian Marina Bobkova. Though she kept making appearances at Commonwealth Games in 2006, 2010 and 2018, plucking medals at each of the editions, the Olympics was something of a phantom. "It would always happen," says Kuheli, "The competitions and trials leading up to the Olympics just never fell in place for her. I've been at the Lusail range several times and we knew the conditions well. We knew it could get windy and had stocked up on ammunition if it did. We always have plans in place, this time it worked, so we're talking about it. If it hadn't, it would just be another learning."

Unlike the parabolic-arc flight that a shot can take in still air under the force of gravity, windy conditions can throw the trajectory of a shot completely off its intended path. Mercifully, Kuheli offers, the dusty conditions were controlled by the laying of a sheet of plastic grass at the range. "With wind, your mind, focus, concentration, everything can be messed up. But this time we were anticipating every challenge one could think of that comes with competing outdoors. We were prepared for the worst literally," says Kuheli, a CISF employee, who finished among medals at the World Police Games this year.

Now as Tejaswini, who belongs to an Army household and picked up the sport when she was 13, hits the road to her forties, Kuheli wants to keep her fitness swaddled in cotton balls. "Technique stays," says Kuheli, who's a few years older to Tejaswini," what changes with age is our bodies. I already have knee troubles and it's always my priority to keep Tejaswini off any punishing fitness schedules so she doesn't suffer the same. We had our plans chalked till a quota place. Now we need to work towards holding on to it."

For Tejaswini, who tries to sound audible over a WhatsApp call in her brief offerings of happy responses above the chatter of teammates in the background, it's a happy reconciliation with an Olympic fate she believed had deserted her. The gleanings from her time spent with her teenaged compatriots, who in their barely-there moustaches, girlish abandon and devil-may-care spirit have been plentiful. She picks the most profound one for mention: "Juniors bahut cool, bahut zinda-dil hai. Yehi unse sikh rahi hoon. (The juniors are very cool and full of life. I'm learning that from them."