Luck and faith are tricky concepts – they rely on a higher power that is not in your control. For Dhiraj Bommadevara, these two concepts have been his best friends over the past six months.
Luck was not in his favour when he shot scores of 19 and 16 (out of 30) in a crucial recurve archery quarter-final match against Ilfat Abdullin of Kazakhstan at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou. There was a brief moment of respite as he forced a shoot-out, but once again, luck did not smile upon him – his arrow was further to the target than Abdullin’s attempt.
It was faith, however, that kept the archer going as he reached the final of the men’s individual event in the Asian Olympic qualifying event in Bangkok, Thailand, and secured India’s first 2024 Paris Olympic quota in the sport.
Luck and faith may not have been in his control. But the 22-year-old archer has had a firm grasp of his talent. It is what has helped him stand out in a year where India’s recurve archers have failed to live up to expectations.
“The thing is that whoever is on top of their mindset, how long does it take to bounce back,” asked Bommadevara when speaking to Scroll after the qualifiers. “One day is enough for someone, one month for someone. It takes years for some. I only know what my potential is.
“And the mistakes that happened, I know that when it happened, it was out of control. It was unexpected.”
After the disappointment of the individual event at the Asian Games, Bommadevara had to bounce back quickly to compete in the men’s team event. And he did just that, teaming up with veterans Atanu Das and Tushar Shelke, to win silver – the first time an Indian team has won silver in a recurve team event at the Asian Games.
“The whole archery family, my teammates, we stood like a wall from the rest of the world,” recalled Bommadevara on how he recovered from the quarter-final loss.
“[They said] that it is okay, we are here. I thought that personally, whatever loss has happened, it is my personal loss. But because of me, my team shouldn’t have any problem. I went with this mindset and played in the team matches.”
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Facing tough choices
It was not just Bommadevara’s teammates who provided him the strength to continue competing and winning. The Andhra Pradesh native is incredibly close to his family and has always sought the support of his parents in times of trouble.
“If I have to talk it out, I will talk with my family only,” he said. “I cannot even call up other people and share my issues. For me, my family is always first.”
It is from the family that he was introduced to the sport as well. His father, a schoolteacher, had given him his first bow and arrow when he was just five.
As Bommadevara grew up, so did his love for archery. But soon the family ran into financial struggles.
His father had taken up a job as a judge in archery competitions – for a salary of around Rs 5000 – because the school he worked in had shut down.
And then in 2017, Bommadevara was left to face a tough decision.
“I had a last chance,” he recalled. “I had given my mother’s mangalsutra as mortgage to the bank for a loan [for archery equipment]. My father said that this is the last thing I can do. After that I had to choose whether I wanted to do archery or study. My father left that decision to me.”
A youth championship trial in Rohtak did not prove fruitful for the then 16-year-old, despite him finishing in the top three. However, there was one saving grace – not-for-profit foundation Olympic Gold Quest spotted him and decided to support him.
Working with a Korean coach in the camp and earning enough money to reduce the burden on his parents provided a sense of relief for Bommadevara. He then joined the Indian Army and started to train at the Army Sports Institute in Pune.
Bommadevara had a bright future ahead of him, but he was not one to forget the misses.
“My dad always says that you don’t have to be happy about your success,” he had said to this publication ahead of the Asian Games.
“[He said] we know how much success we have achieved after seeing our failures. So forget about success and always remember your failures.”
Return from the biggest failure
Arguably, the biggest shock of his career came on October 3, in the quarter-final of the individual event at the Asian Games, against Abdullin.
“At that time, [I thought] that I would leave archery,” he said. “I was damaged by myself. I was so broken that I couldn’t do anything. I came to think like that.”
He faced a ton of online abuse for his performance as well, leaving him “emotionally damaged.”
“If I’m the only one who is watching someone’s match and he plays so badly, then I will also say the same thing,” recalled Bommadevara.
“But, the thing is that I’m thinking practically [now]. At that time, it was only emotionally.”
The thing with shoot-outs, explained Bommadevara, is that it was a matter of luck. There is always a 50% chance that things will not go his way in a shootout.
But then he started to take matters into his own hands. With the support of his teammates, he changed the way he saw his competitions. He started to focus one day at a time, not getting ahead of himself.
First up was the men’s team event, where he won the silver medal. Then was the trials for the Asian Championships.
Now Bommadevara has a quota under his belt, but he is not resting on his laurels.
“[Right now we are thinking as if] we don’t have any quota and we are preparing [with that mindset],” said the archer who will be heading to South Korea for a two-week training camp in December.
“So, rather than pressure, it’s like a boost up for every Indian archer. Now it has become the motivation.”
For the Indian recurve archery team, who now have one more chance to secure a Paris Olympic quota place, it will be more about putting behind a lukewarm 2023 behind them. Bommadevara is the only recurve archer to have won an individual medal this year – bronze in the World Cup Stage in Turkey.
“Those who are a little out of the archery [world] feel that this year’s recurve archery result is a little less,” explained Bommadevara.
“And it is absolutely agreeable that the compound archery [team] has had a very good season.
“Obviously, that comparison comes when one team has a very good result in one event and not in the other. We only had two-three medals in the whole year [but] in 2017-18, we had only one medal. And in between, we used to get only one medal from Deepika [Kumari]. We are very happy that we are improving a lot from ourselves.”
Bommadevara operates on a lot of faith and the knowledge that sometimes luck will not go his way.
But at the end of the day, he used that one thing that was in his control to earn an Olympic spot. His talent.