When Apurvi Chandela won the first gold medal of the season-opening shooting World Cup on Saturday, she created a new world record with a score of 252.9 in the women’s 10 air rifle final in Delhi.

Hours before, she had finished fourth in the qualification with a score of 629.3 while compatriot Mehuli Ghosh, shooting in the non-competitive MQS category, shot a stunning 631 which was the second highest of the day, after Zhao Ruozhu’s qualification world record of 634.

The 19-year-old Ghosh, who has won medals at the World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics Games in the span of one year, had in fact missed out on India’s International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup squad, despite not scoring less than 628 in the selection trials. But in her own words, a few decimal misses here and there – a 622.80 and World Championship and 624.10 at the nationals, in her case – can be the difference between in and out of the Indian team.

But this narrow margin is something Ghosh and every other Indian competitor in the field is used to –women’s 10m air rifle is the toughest, most competitive shooting category in India, after all.

In the last one year, it has become one of the strongest events for India and was the first discipline to clinch both the quota places on offer for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the very first qualification event when Anjum Moudgil and Chandela finished second and fourth respectively at the 2018 World Championship in Changwon, Korea.

Since the start of 2017, India has held the world record for both the senior (Chandela) and junior individual (Elavenil Valarivan) as well as the junior team, even as the scores keep on increasing. Such is the level of competition today that Anjali Bhagwat, the pioneer of 10m air rifle in India, believes that she would have struggled with this lot.

Rise of teenagers

What makes this event so competitive in India? The depth is simply remarkable.

Of the 61 women in the provisional selection list, the top 10 had average scores of above 625. At the 2018 nationals, teen stars Elavenil and Mehuli did not even feature in the final. Yet, their scores over the year have been so consistent that they are India No 3 and 4 behind the steady Moudgil and Chandela, who have made the event their own in India.

“It is undoubtedly the most competitive. Even our juniors have such high scores and the top shooters are consistently giving 626 or 628 plus scores in international competitions. That says everything about their talent,” Bhagwat, the first Indian woman to win multiple international events in air rifle, told Scroll.in.

Moudgil, who had a breakthrough year in 2018, said that this rise of Indian air rifle shooters can be attributed to both the change in rules in 2017 as well as the swift rise of teen stars around the same time.

“Women have a habit of shooting good in 40 shots and when they started off 60 shots we had advantage of having two more cards, we would just push it. In women’s, the competition is so tough, you can’t just miss anything. They [the youngsters] just keep pushing the scores and I feel like I have to do more every time,” she laughed.

Chandela had a similar viewpoint during a conversation before her match. “I think there is a change in whole sports culture in the country. There’s accessibility so that’s one of the reasons we have so many good shooters. What’s this done is we are pushing ourselves more. You can’t take anything lightly. I have to perform in every competition. One competition you do badly and you are out.”

Indeed, the rise of teen stars Ghosh and Elaveni has pushed everyone out of their comfort zone, a fact that almost every woman in the field agrees. Both the youngsters have already bettered the current world records in unofficial events and hit the high notes consistently. The likes of Moudgil and Chandela didn’t enjoy this level of success as teens, with the format still of 400 shots. But compared to their slow and steady climb, the teens today are pushing the seniors to the limit.

Bigger talent pool, lower cost

The competition and depth are established. But what led to this surge?

“There are not only one or two but five shooters who are at par right now. On their day, they can beat anyone in the world. It’s difficult to say how and why we have five shooters there at the top. Maybe it’s mutual motivation and healthy competition between them,” Joydeep Karmakar, a rifle star himself and personal coach of Ghosh, said.

Bhagwat feels it’s the number of participant that has made all the difference. “It is popular in India because we have had so many achievements in this event and it is accessible and easy to pursue. The main reason behind our success is the participation. More than 5000 shooters participated in the national championship and more than 50% were in air rifle. That is tremendous response. This kind of participation increased pressure and it gives a push to the top level shooters to keep their standard high.”

But this was not always the case. After Bhagwat and Suma Shirur’s consistent presence in air rifle across events including the Olympics, there was a barren stretch for India in this once successful category. This came to a head in 2012 when there was no Indian woman qualifier in 10m air rifle category at the London Olympics.

Post that, India saw a slew of rifle shooters making their way through the years – Mampi Das, Avneet Kaur Sidhu, Raj Chaudhary, Meghana Sajjanar, Pooja Ghatkar and Ayonika Paul. Some of them had moderate success with Ghatkar winning a World Cup bronze in 2017 while Paul was the most consistent with seven final appearances in the Olympic cycle from 2013 to 2016. However, since 2017, an Indian woman has reached six out of nine air rifle finals in ISSF events.

“In between the gap was due to many reasons. We did not have foreign coaches and whoever (shooters) were there, they were not guided properly. But now we have foreign coach Oleg Mikhailov as well as Deepali [Deshpande] Suma, Gagan [Narang] and me running my own academies,” Bhagwat explained.

Indeed, the return of the first batch of shooting icons of India as coaches has benefited the youngsters tremendously.

There is a more technical explanation as well. “You spend 1-1.5 rs (per bullet) in ammos for air, 25-30 in small bore. Small bore weapon can go up to Rs 3.5 lakh. Air rifle you can get for 2 lakh or so. So that’s also a difference,” Karmakar said while enumerating the cost factor.

But whether due to accessibility or choice, the last one year has started a golden new era for women’s air rifle shooting in India. If a similar pattern continues in the next year, there could well be a chance of further Olympic glory in a discipline that has already given India two medals, — gold in 2008 and bronze in 2012 — both in the men’s.