The year was 2008 and Haryana’s Bhiwani was the epicentre of Indian boxing after Vijender Singh’s bronze winning feat at the Beijing Olympic Games.
While starry-eyed youngsters were ready to become the next Vijender, some 50 km from the cradle of Indian boxing, in a nondescript village called Umra in Hisar district, Manjeet Singh was imparting lessons in basic archery to the kids.
Mocked as “madaari, shikaari” (hunter, conjurer) by his village folks, Manjeet has produced India’s first ever Youth Olympics archery silver medallist in Akash Malik.
“No one was willing to take up archery. People were ridiculing me for teaching some weird hunting tricks to their kids,” said Manjeet, who’s produced two junior internationals in Akash and Himani Kumari.
Manjeet, 43, holds a Masters degree in physical education.
Son of former village sarpanch Ratan Singh Malik, Manjeet didn’t know the basics of archery till he watched the sport closely in Amravati while pursuing Diploma in Physical Education at the Rashtrasant Tukadoji Maharaj Nagpur University in his early 30s.
“I thought it was child’s play but when I picked up the bow, my hands started trembling... I realised how tough it was to keep your hands steady,” said Manjeet. He decided to transform farming land into archery arena.
The journey began with three or four initial recruits and a couple of wooden bows (costing Rs 1,500 each), which had been parceled in from Manipur.
As his wards started winning state and national leve events, people took notice of his archery centre. In 2012 he rented a farming field of 1.5 acres to construct an archery range.
“I levelled it with a tractor, fixed 12 targets in a 90-metre range, erected a fence, and built a storehouse,” he recalled.
His Umra archery centre was ready in a farming field.
“Nobody gave me a penny, but my passion for the sport kept me going,” he said.
The Haryana government, then, helped him import bows (each set costing Rs 4 lakh) for his wards.
“It was during that time, I saw Akash who impressed me with his calmness. He was also very hardworking. I took him under my wings,” he said.
Akash was part of the Haryana team that won the Under-14 national archery championship in Vijayawada in 2014.
His archery centre has also grown with web-connected CCTV cameras and solar powered lamps.
“We have equipment worth Rs 60-70 lakh stored at the centre. But now, it’s the safe custody of our village folks, who show great respect to me,” he says of the changing times.
With Akash’s success, Umra’s popularity is destined to grow.
“I’ve no doubt that in coming days, Umra will be to archery what Bhiwani has been for boxing. But we have to keep working hard. This is just the beginning,” said Manjeet.
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