A reshuffle, the National Rifle Association of India had announced, was in order after the Indian shooting team returned empty-handed from the Tokyo Olympics last year.
The shakeup of the line-up of coaches and shooters was expected as the team restarts its preparation for the new Olympic cycle. And in the first senior ISSF World Cup since Tokyo, a new name has emerged: Esha Singh.
As the Indian team returned from Cairo, Egypt from the year’s first major, Esha’s luggage was heavier by three medals – a silver in the women’s 10m air pistol, and gold in the women’s 10m air pistol and 25m pistol team events – the most for an Indian at the event. For the 17-year-old waiting in the wings, biding her time in the shadow of the talented Manu Bhaker, these were her first senior international accolades.
“I have a lot of junior World Cup medals, but this was the first big one for me,” she told Scroll.in.
“I’ve always had winning a senior World Cup medal on my bucket list, now I can take it off.”
On the senior international level, indeed this was the first time Esha had made a breakthrough – that too in her first senior international. But her name hasn’t been unknown in the domestic circuit.
As a 13-year-old, in 2018, she beat a field that included Bhaker and veteran Heena Sidhu to become the youngest ever senior national champion in the women’s 10m air pistol event. That feat came just four years after she started playing the sport.
On a Sunday morning in 2014, her father Sachin Singh, a former rally driver of some renown, was to meet a friend – a shotgun shooter – at the Gachibowli Sports Complex. The young Esha tagged along.
“I had already been playing a lot of sports by the time I was nine, skating, tennis, go-karting,” she said.
“Then my dad took me to the badminton courts where Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu were playing, so I started that as well. But this was the first time I had seen shooting as a sport.”
She was handed the shotgun, but it was too heavy, so was the rifle her ‘uncle’ fetched for her from the complex armoury. The pistol though was just right.
“He advised us to go to Pune for a while to train at Gagan Narang’s academy. We went there for a while. A few months later I won the Under-14 state championship. That’s when I got hooked. All other sports went out the window,” she recalled.
Support from home came keenly, as her father decided to retire from his sport to accompany Esha on her travels for training and competitions.
“Esha’s first pistol cost Rs 70,000, almost double of what I spent on my first bike, and she would often tell me that her pistol is also like my bikes,” described Sachin Singh to The Indian Express.
“When Esha showed a keen interest in shooting, we would travel to Pune to attend camps while her mother Srilatha would manage our sports shop. Later, we also built her a small range at home. It was like operating a car garage for me after I left rallying (in 2016).”
Starting from the range at home, Esha has been competing and training at more professional setups across the country. Her sojourns across the globe, competing for the national team, have seen her win gold medals in individual events at the junior Asian Championships in Doha and Taiwan, and a silver at the Junior World Championships in Lima, Peru, last year.
The national title in 2018, she asserted, brought out a maturity in her that has only grown ever since. And that’s what helped her stay calm when she competed in Cairo.
“I wasn’t really bothered by the other people competing (which included 2016 Rio Olympic gold medallist Anna Korakaki). I was just thinking about my own shots and to put in the best I could for each attempt,” she said.
Incidentally, it was only Korakaki who could beat her in the individual air pistol event. But the two golds Esha won in the air pistol and 25m pistol team events helped India top the leaderboard.
The new medals will be neatly decorated on the wall at her home in Hyderabad, next to the ones her father had won during his rally racing career.
“We had counted them a few years ago, I have more medals than he does now,” she added.
In her spare time she likes to go-kart, a habit, she described, that came from her father.
“I haven’t raced against him, maybe I will.”
Either way, for now, in the Singh household, after her Egyptian exploits, Esha has the bragging rights.