At 7 am on a Wednesday morning, 15-year-old F Sumaya was not getting ready for school like most others of her age. Instead, with a quiver full of arrows hung about her waist, she peered through the lens of her bow, concentrating on a small yellow target 70 metres away.
The swishing sound of a flying arrow was followed by a thud as it struck the target that stood in the grounds of the MGR Janaki College for Women in Chennai. The Tamil Nadu archery champions were training.
On October 8 and 9, the Tamil Nadu State Archery Meet was conducted as a part of the state selection for the Chennai Archery Nationals, to be held in the final week of December by the Archery Association of India. Now, these state level archers train all day long with the different kinds of bows they specialise in – recurve, compound or Indian – with their coach Shihan Hussaini, the founder and general secretary of the Archery Association of Tamil Nadu. This is the only state archery body recognised and affiliated with the Tamil Nadu Olympic Association and the Archery Association of India.
Sumaya competed with participants far older than she is to win gold in the senior category at the State Archery Championships held in Chennai. Although she was eligible to participate in the sub-junior category, she chose to participate in the senior level, which does not have an age bracket, and won in the 18-metre indoor recurve bow event.
“The next aim is the Olympics,” said coach Shihan Hussaini. “Sumaya and another young archer, Swati, are great contenders. We will win.”
Enough talent, less support
Hussaini said the first proof that Tamil Nadu had immense potential in archery came in 2012 in the 33rd National Championship held at the Anna University in the city.
“At the end of the whole show, we made a friendly challenge,” said Hussaini. “We announced that Tamil Nadu would like to meet all the Olympians for a match. First they were laughing at us, mocking us and then agreed to have a match. But we won hands down. Everyone was shocked.”
Hussaini said that while there is great talent in Tamil Nadu, there is hardly any infrastructure for aspiring archers. There has been hardly any monetary support by the government, he said.
“But support is not just getting equipment,” said Hussaini. “The schools must support children by saying, 'Just go shoot, we’ll arrange for teachers to coach you at a different time.' Colleges and parents must do that too.” But he was optimistic that there was gradual change in the attitude towards the sport.
Now, eight young women archers have been brought under the guidance of Hussaini, supported by the Shasun Jain College for Women, which takes care of their tuition fees, uniform, meals and advanced equipment for four years of their college life.
Sumaya’s father, who was a boxing champion many years ago, temporarily quit his day job to help coach and support his daughter until the Nationals in December. He told her that she did not need to worry about studying or examinations for the time being. Both of them arrive at the ground for training at 5 am in the morning and leave only at 6 pm in the evening.
But unlike Sumaya, many of these archers do not receive much support from their families. State champion Guru Prakash said that despite two consecutive gold medals in the senior category recurve event, his family was not convinced with his ambition to become an Olympic-level archer.
“When I purchased my recurve bow, I had to pay Rs 1.5 lakh from my own pocket, and take a loan of Rs 1 lakh from my father,” said the 23-year-old, who works as a German translator as well.
Many roads to archery
But archery was not Prakash’s first love. Rifle-shooting was. While pursuing his post graduate degree in Geology at Anna University, Prakash trained in rifle-shooting as a part of the National Cadet Corps programme. But after college, he found rifle-shooting too expensive a sport to pursue independently.
“I was not happy with archery at first, because I had to choose this as a second option to rifle-shooting,” said the 23-year-old. “As time went, I got very interested in it. Now, given a choice, I would not choose rifle-shooting over archery.”
Before turning to archery, Sumaya too was passionate about another sport – soft ball tennis. By the age of 12, she had already participated in two international championships in the sport.
“I then injured my knee, so I was not able to run much,” said Sumaya. “But I like playing any sport, especially difficult ones. My main aim is to participate in the Olympics, in any game.”
Selva Ganapathy, a technical superintendent at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, always wanted to take up a sport and train at the international level. Inspired by archer Deepika Kumari's story , the 34-year-old picked up archery just four years ago and has already attended three World Championships so far.
“Archery is one game where you don’t have any age limit,” said Selva Ganapathy. “Even if you are 50, you can learn to shoot.”