When 18-year-old Elavenil Valarivan was in the middle of this interview, Olympic medallist Gagan Narang walked in and a hush fell over the room. The normally chatty teen went completely silent, till Narang addressed her. “You beat me today, but I will be back tomorrow,” he told his protege with a grin.
This interaction should give you the idea, Elavenil is a young gun to watch out for.
Indian teenage shooters have been steadily making their mark on the national circuit through the last year. Even so, she was a surprise national champion in 2017 when she bagged the 10m air rifle senior gold ahead of seasoned campaigners in December. A month earlier, she had topped the National selection trials in what is perhaps among the most competitive shooting categories in India.
But while it is her national exploits in 2017 that brought the 18-year-old into the limelight, it is her exceptional numbers since then that have earmarked her for the big stage. In March, she won gold at the ISSF Junior World Cup in Sydney with a then world record score of 631.4 in the qualification. At the ongoing selection trials at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range, she has bettered that with 632.2.
These aren’t any ordinary numbers. At the time, her junior world record was higher than the women’s senior record (629.5, currently it is at 633.44.)
But for the Ahmedabad-based shooter, the fact that she was able to shoot the complete match with her exacerbated knee injury was probably more important that the score in Sydney. In fact, her only goal for 2018 was to fully recover from the injury which had hampered her for over year. The record was a bonus.
“When I went to Sydney, the journey was almost two days as we were stranded at the airport in Kuala Lumpur [after the World University Games.] I was back to zero, I didn’t even train there and the next day I shot a world record,” she recounted to The Field on the sidelines off the KSS Memorial Shooting Championship in Delhi.
In a great deal of pain, she practically shot on one foot and willpower alone, winning the team gold with a world record score as well.
“It started last March due to excessive gym, when I was only training and not shooting because of my board exams. When I started to train again, I was not able to stand even for five minutes or five shots. I met a lot of physios and did a lot of workouts, but the pain kept getting worse. Now it is better because I can shoot a match with breaks, but I am still working on it,” she added.
While this sounds physically strenuous, for Ela, as she is called by everyone, it was a question of mind over matter.
“Ela knows how to win, she knows what she has to do, even if it is on one leg. It is her nature of survival,” Neha Chavan, who has been her coach since 2014, told The Field.
But even as she struggled with full fitness, she kept honing her technique. The meticulous teen had already prepared for the World Cup at the World University Games in Malaysia and knew what she had to do once she held the rifle.
“Working on her technique has been a process for us and she has come up step-by-step. She has always achieved whatever goal was set in terms of scores,” her coach explained.
Another aspect that works in the youngster’s favour is that she is a quick shooter and can finish her matches faster. “With breaks about two times I complete my match in an hour of the given one and a quarter hour. But I enjoy finals because I love to shoot in timings.” she added.
The 18-year-old is a quick learner as well, having picked up the rifle just five years back “for fun.”
From fun to vocation
Shooting started as a coincidence after the avid athlete met her father’s student’s daughter - Riya Shah - at a range in Ahmedabad, where she had moved from Tamil Nadu as a three-year-old. But it was the grit of the sport that made her choose it.
“I have tried almost all sports except cricket, football and volleyball. My parents both played badminton and my father was also a state-level volleyball player so there were no restrictions.
When Riya handed me my weapon and asked me to take it up, I started just for fun but later on I became serious about it,” she recalled.
It all changed in 2013 when she won a team bronze at the school games representing Divine Buds. From then on, it was all about the thrill of playing. Ela moved schools to focus on her shooting career enrolling at Global Mission International School.
“No other sport gave me the satisfaction I wanted, but once I started shooting seriously, I got to know that this is the push-back I really wanted. In other games, say boxing, you can hit the person harder and remove your frustration, but in shooting it is more challenging, you have to make yourself calmer. That’s what attracted me to the game,” she explained.
Coming from an 18-year-old, these words sound wise beyond her years. But watch her shoot and talk about it and it is evident why this sport is her vocation. And her dedication was suitably rewarded big leap came when she was selected for Project Leap, an initiative of the Gun for Glory centre run by Olympic medallist Narang.
But for the normally studious Ela, balancing her academics and sport wasn’t as easy. The daughter of academicians, she took up science but could not keep up. However, instead of being disheartened, she used this setback as a motivation to do even better in her shooting.
“I was a scholar student till Std IX. But in my Board exams, I was not able to concentrate on studies and despite studying in the last 10 days, I scored decent. I thought if I can do this in the last 10 days then I can take up science and do engineering. But I was terribly wrong about that and thought that I should have some backup to tell that because of this I couldn’t study so I had to focus more on shooting,” she said with a laugh.
“But parents supported me fully. If they had told me to stop shooting for a year and study, I wouldn’t be here.”
At the ongoing competition in Delhi, she has been shooting consistent scores while preparing for the Junior World Cup in Suhl, Germany. And one of the biggest motivators for her is the fact that she is training side-by-side with her mentor and role model Narang, something that scares her as much as it inspires her. She barely speaks in front of him, but with the rifle in hand, she can hold a different kind of conversation with him, a fact that Narang acknowledges as well.
With a support system like this, Ela is set for the big stage. From Tamil Nadu to Gujarat, from Pune to back now in Chennai, the teen has had her fair share of obstacles already. But with her trademark grin and steely grit, she has seen them all through and looks set for a lot more records in the future.