When Anjali Bhagwat won three gold medals and a silver at the 1999 Commonwealth Championships, the first Indian woman to achieve the feat, she kick-started a series of firsts for Indian shooting.

Within the next five years, she was the first Indian to win a gold medal at an ISSF World Cup, the first shooter to reach an Olympic final and the first Indian to be ranked No 1 in the world.

At a time when any performance at the international level was path-breaking for Indian shooting, Anjali Bhagwat didn’t settle for the ordinary and constantly pushed the bar higher, reaching finals of many international events and scooping up medals even when it was not expected of her.

“The sky was open for me,” Anjali told Scroll.in, recalling the time when she was the flag-bearer of Indian shooting at the international stage.

“Once you enter a certain league, you don’t worry if there is a benchmark set for you or not. You just follow your growth path and keep getting better. That’s what I did,” she added.

Her exploits, that include 61 international medals, came at a time when Indian shooters lacked basic infrastructure and coaching inspired a generation of shooters that went on to add Olympic medals of all three colours to India’s kitty.

Taking up shooting

However, for Anjali, taking up the sport happened by accident. After joining NCC at Kirti College in Mumbai, Bhagwat wanted to excel in sports. She didn’t know which sport at the time. All she wanted was to win medals.

“I had no idea what shooting was. It just happened to me,” Anjali said.

“As a youngster, I watched the 1984 Olympics where Carl Lewis won four Olympic medals. I felt I want to do something like that. I had no idea which sport I wanted to take but fortunately I joined shooting thanks to NCC,” she added.

Eight days after holding the rifle for the first time, she won a silver medal at the national championships. Her talent was apparent and she never looked back since.

“Shooting, I feel, is very addictive because it’s an individual sport and you don’t need any team members to play it. It completely depends on your individual skill. And if you work hard, you get results,” Anjali said.

In 1995, she won her first international medal at the SAF Games. Four years later she won three gold medals and one silver at the Commonwealth Championships, a tournament where she came of age. It was around the same time she started training under Hungarian coach Laszlo Szucsak. In the very next year, she won Asian Championships silver in sports prone event.

Making a mark at the Olympics

After a series of international medals, Anjali was given a wild card entry at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She was a finalist at the event, a first for any Indian shooter. The journey as fairytale-like as it sounds was hardly easy.

“When I went to Sydney Olympics, I did not have my own shooting equipment with me. When I went to the village, my coach arranged it for me somehow. The other shooters though used to go to the factory, conduct special testing, I barely managed to get equipment,” she said.

“But mentally we were very fit, and also we had nothing to lose as whatever we achieved was the best in India. So that way it was easy but we also had a responsibility that we had to take Indian shooting as high as possible,” she added.

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No coach, no problem

From 2001, Anjali had no coach for three years after Szucsak joined the Japanese shooting team. Without a mentor, it was all about self-learning, picking up tricks on the go.

“We used to work on the things that we learned from the coaches when they were with us. Those who were trained under Szucsak still shoot at the highest level because the way he taught the basics of shooting and developed our mindset was quite amazing,” she said.

“Because of him, I was technically sound, and even if there was no coach I could always give an average performance. After that, as you get more exposure, you can do a bit of self-learning. At the end of the day, it’s an individual sport,” she added.

Anjali learned a lot from following other shooters on the field, especially two shooters who she felt had the most impact on her.

“I learned a lot from Reneta Mauer from Poland. I loved her style the way she handled herself, going about her business calmly,” she said.

“Second was Galkina Lioubov. She was, in fact, my close competitor. But, the way she shot was incredible. Since we didn’t have our own ammunition, we had no clue how to shoot in windy conditions. I used to observe how she shot. The weather made no difference to her. Whether it was windy, sunny, or if there was a storm, she used to hit her average score every time,” she added.

The Champion of Champions

Improving with every passing year, Anjali’s greatest triumph came in 2002. After winning the silver medal at the 2002 World Cup Finals in Munich, she was invited to participate in the Champions of Champions match, a mixed event involving the winning male and female shooters.

“I didn’t know about the Champion of Champions match. When I was asked to report to court for it, I thought there was some confusion as my match was already over. I had won the silver. But when I reported to the range I came to know about this event that had both male and female shooters. Five minutes before the event, I was briefed the ruled and regulations of the match,” she added.

The match had elimination after every round. After the first five rounds, all the male competitors exited. Anjali made it to the final two with China’s Gao Jing, a bronze medallist at Sydney Olympics in 2000. The winner was to be decided by three fresh shots. Against Gao, it was a tall order.

“She was an excellent player in the finals. She had won many medals and I thought I may not be able to compete with her. But I kept my cool well,” she said.

Trailing the Chinese by 0.2 after two shots, Anjali knew she had a chance of overhauling the deficit. That’s where her mental strength kicked in.

“Before the last shot I decided that I will be very calm before taking the shot and it would be better if she shot first,” Anjali said.

“The crowd there were supporting me. I am someone who likes a bit of noise. It allows me to focus on my shot. When she shot, everyone was clapping and all the attention was on her monitor. That’s when I shot with full focus and bettered her shot to win,” Anjali added

The triumph made Indians aware of such an event in shooting. From the next year, an event on the lines of champion of champions event was included in the national championships. To date, no Indian has achieved this feat.

Anjali went on to win 31 gold, 23 silver, and 7 bronze medals and set 13 new records at the international level. She set the benchmark for the generations to follow taking Indian shooting to great heights.

The future is bright

As for the current crop of shooters, Anjali believes great things are in store for them.

“This generation of shooters is very different. They have no fear. During my time we used to have a bit of a complex about foreigners. But for them it doesn’t matter, they feel they are the best,” Anjali said.

“A lot of senior coaches have opened academies so the technical knowledge is very good. In general, professional awareness is quite high. During our times we didn’t even know what physiotherapy meant. They have access to all experts from fitness coaches, dieticians, and physios. So, what it took us five years to achieve they can do it in a year,” she added.

Indian shooters are expected to add to the Olympic tally when the Games next take place. This group of shooters could go down in history for what they achieve and it would be well deserved. But one must remember, it all began with Anjali Bhagwat and a few others.