In 2010, Rahi Sarnobat won a Commonwealth Games gold medal at 19 years of age.
In 2013, she became the first Indian pistol shooter to win a gold at the shooting World Cup.
In 2014, she defended her Commonwealth title and won a team bronze at the Asian Games.
In 2015, she had to take nearly a year-long break from the range due to injury.
In 2016, she could barely pick up the gun due to a severe pain in the elbow, that she took more than a year to recover from, both physically and mentally.
In 2018, she became the first Indian woman to win a shooting gold at the Asian Games, as she held her nerve through two shoot-offs to top the podium by a single shot in the nail-biting final.
The journey of the last few years, from Incheon to Indonesia, has not been easy for the 27-year-old. There were doubts whether she could be back to her best again. But through it all, the one thing that shone through was Sarnobat’s prodigious talent and her commitment to the sport.
Another very important, if not decisive, factor has been the calming presence of her coach Munkhbayar Dorjsujen. The Mongolian-German shooter, a seven-time Olympian, a two-time medallist, and exactly the kind of influence the girl from Kolhapur needed.
When Sarnobat was on her way back to full form and fitness last year, she wanted to work with a coach who has the experience of being on the Olympic podium. Someone who has been there and knows exactly the kind of bandwidth needed to be at the top.
“I came to know that she retired after 25 years of her career. We had one trial training camp in July last year. After that I decided to hire her as personal coach,” Sarnobat told PTI after her win.
This is where Olympic Gold Quest stepped in and arranged for the 1992 and 2008 bronze medallist to come to India and be Sarnobat’s full-time coach. “The entire plan she has had and how efficiently she has stuck to the plan over the last one year, the calmness she has brought in has helped. Everything that she has said should happen, has happened as per the plan.” Viren Rasquinha, CEO of OGQ said.
Sarnobat credited the role of Munkhbayar in improving her mindset,“She has achieved a lot so her attitude towards competition and performance is really different and that matters a lot. More than the technical things, these things matter.”
On her part, Munkhbayar set a plan in place for the technical details but also worked on mental training aspect. She had even prepared her ward for shoot-off situations, a trait that served her fabulously in the final. That the two of them bonded almost like family also helped.
“I had to change her technique and I also worked on her a lot on the mental aspect of the game. She was already a high-level shooter and needed some tweak in her game. It was a close final but I had prepared her for the shoot-off,” Munkhbayar in Indonesia.
The time of turmoil
When Sarnobat finally sealed her gold, she broke into a smile and one of the first things she did was envelop her coach in a tight hug.
When she was on the podium, in between receiving her medal and the national anthem, she took the Indian flag she had carried with her and wrapped it around her shoulders.
These two actions are a very good indicator of the kind of person Sarnobat is – a sentimental shooter, a phrase that is almost an oxymoron. In the past, this emotional depth of her personality has often affected her on the range.
After her injury in 2015, when she hurt her back, shoulder and elbow, she found it difficult to recover the physical fitness. For almost a year, she struggled to lift a gun. That it was the year of the Olympics, where a few years back she had become the first Indian woman to seal an Olympic quota in sport pistol, must have hurt as well.
Add to the fact that her coach Anatolii Piddubnyi, who was responsible for her rise after the CWG medal, passed away in 2015. The dual blow of injury and bereavement took a toll on her and resulted in a dip in form at even the national level.
Rise, fall and rise
But the Kolhapur girl didn’t think of quitting, but kept at it. Once a top athlete, the desire to compete was still there. With the help Anuja Dalvi Pandit and Niranjan Pandit and a dedicated team at LiveActive Physiotherapy and Sports Injury Clinic, she worked her way back to fitness and then form.
In a way, the nail-biting final was a metaphor for her rise, dip and rise again.
In the final on Wednesday, she led for the majority of the match, fell behind in the penultimate series, missed a few crucial shots and then held her nerve and resolutely fought back, inch-by-inch to nose ahead in the second shoot-off.
The legendary Anjali Bhagwat said on air that the nervy shoot-out moments is something her fellow Maharashtra shooter is a veteran of. “On the national level, she had once got through six rounds of shoot-outs to win,” Bhagwat narrated.
In Indonesia, she needed only the ten shots to seal her place in the history of Indian shooting. No Indian woman shooter has won gold at the Asiad, it was a Holy Grail of sorts. She was seventh in qualification, with a modest 580. Her precision round is not her strength, it is her terrific record in rapid that really makes her star in sport pistol.
Manu Bhaker, the teenage prodigy, had topped the charts with a Games record score of 593. All eyes would have naturally been on the 16-year-old when the final began. But it was Sarnobat who took the lead, as she calmly shot perfect five twice to begin. Her first miss came in her 12th shot, but even when she missed a few more in a bunch, she was just as calm. Reloading her gun, adjusting her grip, flexing her arm, and hitting over 10.2 with regularity.
In April this year, she had missed a medal at the ISSF World Cup in Changwon – the site of her 2013 triumph – by just two points. She will return to the same place now, as she aims to book her 2020 Olympics spot at the ISSF World Championship. This time, as the Asian Games gold medallist.