Ajit Patil recalled the first time he met Rudrankksh Balasaheb Patil, back in 2015. Ajit was the coach of the Maharashtra rifle team for the National School Games, and Rudrankksh was making his debut. The coach had never heard of the youngster before, and in those first training sessions, he saw a spark but still nothing much out of the ordinary.
“There was nothing in the mind that we would be working together later, or that one day he’d be winning the World Championship gold medal,” Ajit told Scroll.in of his first impressions of Rudrankksh, who is now the second Indian to be crowned 10m air rifle men’s World Champion.
That impression for Ajit back then would soon change, as the then 13-year-old would go on to secure bronze at the competition – just a few months after taking up the sport.
“He’s a calm, quiet guy. He has the qualities you need to be a good shooter – he’s patient, disciplined, hard-working and driven. And he’s very research-oriented. Until he is satisfied with the research he is doing, he will not stop.”
“I like to do a lot of research in this sport during my free time. That’s a bit of a hobby for me,” he told Scroll.in, a few days after he became the first Indian man since Abhinav Bindra in 2006 to be the gold medallist in this event at World Championships.
“I like to read about the history of the sport, I read about the other players, check my own technique and see if I can find some ideas, and then I try to implement it in my own style.”
That firm focus towards textbook precision is what helped the 18-year-old recently in Egypt, as he not only became world champion but also secured a 10m air rifle berth for India at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
Champion in Cairo
Rudrankksh topped the qualification stage, and then finished second in the ranking round which took him to the gold medal match against Italy’s Danilo Dennis Sollazzo. But Rudrankksh’s “research-driven” process had put him in an ideal frame of mind during his run to gold.
On October 13, a day before the men’s 10m air rifle event, the youngster found an imbalance in his rifle.
“There was some trouble because the weights in the weapon shifted,” said Ajit.
“He started to investigate and only once he made the changes he wanted, he was satisfied. He fixed the gun. Then in the sighter-shots before the match started (on October 14) he realised that the repairs he made were the right ones, and his mind was at ease.
“So, he actually went into the match in a better frame of mind.”
It’s been a while since Rudrankksh’s feat, and finally, with time, he’s had a chance to reflect on his achievement.
“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fantastic. I’ve had a chance to let it sink in now,” he added.
This was the light at the end of the tunnel in a year in which he travelled to his first two senior World Cup events but failed to medal in either.
He’s still quite young – both as an individual and a sportsperson. Yet, going into the Worlds, he put in a great deal of expectation on himself, determined to do what only his idol Bindra had done before for India.
“Our team had worked very hard, the process we followed was good, the practice was going quite well, there were some expectations from myself. I saw how I was performing everyday in training, I could see the genuine effort I was putting in. At the end of the day, if you get a result out of it, it is really wonderful,” he said.
The youngster is currently in Germany attending a training stint under the tutelage of Bindra’s former coach Heinz Reinkemeier.
Yet his journey began at a soon-to-be abandoned shooting range in Thane, Mumbai.
He recalled that in his pre-teens, his parents – both high-ranking officers in the police – used to send him for summer camps in different sports.
“I had gone for swimming, table tennis, chess, badminton, skating, football…” he started rattling the list when asked what he tried his hand at.
“Every year it was a different one. But the shooting coach was the only one who got in touch with my parents once the camp was over and told them that I had a talent.”
That was enough for the Patils to push the youngster into the sport. They did, however, decide on a three-year plan (till Rudrankksh got to Class 10) to see if he continued to do well or if the interest fizzled out.
Training continued with his then coach Snehal Kadam, even once she moved to Andheri. But the distance and time it took to travel to the range and back home started to take a toll on the family.
It reached a point where the Patils sat down one day and worked out a budget.
“The range in Thane had been abandoned (once Kadam shifted), but the owner knew I was a good shooter and was willing to let us use the range free of charge, provided we looked after the repairs and upkeep,” he said.
“My parents made an approximate budget, calculating the cost of diesel it would take to travel to and fro for three years, and keeping in mind the time consumed just in travel because of the traffic. We realised that if we saved that money we could invest into the abandoned range, do it up and then use it for practice.”
And so the family started work – from cleaning up the range, to installing an air conditioner and appropriate lighting system. There was also one lane with an electronic target installed where Rudrankksh now plies his trade.
That eight-lane range is called the Dronacharya Shooting Academy, where several more students have started to learn the ways of the sport. Yet Rudrankksh has been the biggest talent to emerge from that venue.
Path to becoming World Champion
This was all done for a three-year experiment to see how the youngster would fare in the sport. During that time, he shook off the “boredom” he first felt while competing in the sport, and then won six international medals.
By 2017 he started working regularly with Ajit. And apart from the physical and technical aspects of the game he needed to improve on, there was also the mental block he faced when it came to converting silver to gold.
“When you’re in the final stage you know you have a confirmed medal. Then we get into a bit of a relaxed mode knowing that you won’t go home empty handed. That fight and will power drops a bit. I had that issue before, but now I’ve been able to overcome it,” he said.
In Cairo, in the gold medal match, Rudrankksh and Sollazzo were engaged in a gripping fight for the prized medal. Both had secured an Olympic quota for their respective country, yet neither was willing to let go of the chance to become world champion. To put into perspective how tense that match was, consider that the lowest score registered was 10.2 (the highest possible score is 10.9). The highlight of the final was when he shot a 10.8 to just shade a 10.7 from his opponent to make the score 13-13. Despite trailing 4-10 at one point, he never let up.
But Rudrankksh has been training his mind over the years to rely on the process, not on the result.
“When I was in that final, I needed to focus on the process, think about the process. I knew that if I think about winning a medal there is a chance I won’t get the gold. I had to keep telling myself that,” he added.
Eventually, the Indian walked away with gold after winning the final 17-13.
Later at the event he teamed up with Kiran Jadhav and Arjun Babuta to win the men’s team gold as well – two gold medals in his first ever World Championship appearance. But Ajit asserted that his ward is in it for the long run.
“He’s won the World Championships, that’s a big thing. But he’s fine, he’s still rooted. He’s enjoying the achievement but he knows that his target is much higher - the Olympics. This is just a milestone along the way,” Ajit added.
“He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t really care much for achievement, he’s more interested in the process, in the training.”
He’s interested in the research that goes towards reaching greatness.