For Atanu Das, now one of India’s finest archers, archery was a way to stand out from his peers. Amid the cricket and football playing kids of Kolkata, Das picked archery just because it was different.
Honing his skills at the Calcutta Archery Club, he had plunged into a sport where path to the top was relatively uncharted. And it was tough too.
Archery as a sport is a lot tougher than what meets the eye. Every single shot in the sport is an attempt at achieving perfection. And even when an archer hits the bull’s eye, he has to reset and go again with an ever-escalating need to be perfect.
There is no time to dwell on a bad shot or get too carried away with a good one.
Taking failures and success in his stride was a habit that came in handy for Das.
In 2006, the Badanagar-based archer appeared for trials of Tata Archery Academy, the best academy in the country, but was rejected within minutes of starting his trial. For a young boy just finding his feet in the sport, it was a huge blow.
“I went there, they barely gave me any chance, barely saw me shoot and rejected me within an hour,” Das, who is now managed by Baseline Ventures, told Scroll.in.
“The rejection hit me hard. I kept wondering what I had done wrong to be rejected within an hour. They also didn’t give me any feedback about where I should improve,” he added.
Disheartened and dejected, Das soldiered on. It is what archery is all about.
He went back to the drawing board at Calcutta Archery Club and worked hard on his skills.
Six months later, Das won the gold medal in the individual recurve event at the sub-junior national championships defeating a Tata Archery Academy trainee to land the top prize.
“That rejection was always at the back of my mind. It gave me extra motivation to prove them wrong,” Das said.
Immediately after the competition, Tata Archery Academy offered to take him on board. It was redemption for the young kid, but more importantly, a big turning point in his career.
In 2011, just three years after joining the academy he was part of the men’s team that won the silver medal at the World Youth Archery Championships. He was earmarked as one of the promising archers of India.
A big setback
But just as he was about to fly, there was another setback in store. In 2012, Das missed out on Olympic qualification by just a few points. This setback was even harder for him to digest and the toughest one in his career to date, he recalled.
“It was the most difficult period of my career. Missing out on Olympic qualification was very demoralising. I also didn’t have a job and doubts had started to creep in my mind about my future in the sport,” he said.
“It was a phase that taught me a lot. After that, I still had ups and downs in my career but I suffered so much during that period that I learnt how to tackle difficult times,” he added.
Once again having stuck to his guns, he was rewarded.
Das picked up three silver medals and two bronze medals in team events in 2014 that helped him regain his confidence. Two years later, he managed to make the cut for the 2016 Rio Olympics where he was the only Indian archer to qualify for the final round of the individual recurve event.
Fast forward to 2020 and on the cusp of another Olympic appearance for India, Das will head to Tokyo with much more confidence having won a silver medal in the men’s recurve team event at the 2019 World Archery Championship and a bronze medal at the individual event at 2019 Asian Championships.
“With every tournament that I played in the last ten years, I have noted down things where I needed to improve irrespective of whether I won or lost. So that way I have slowly improved small aspects of my archery. It has been a slow journey but with an upward trajectory for me,” he said.
“I’m more disciplined, more confident and a lot calmer now than ten years back,” he added.
The improvements have come as a result of planned, sustained and consistent efforts.
In the off-season, Das spends eight hours everyday working on his skills. Starting the day with an hour-long meditation session to improve his concentration, he follows it up with two three-hour archery practice sessions where he shoots approximately 300-500 arrows every day. He ends an average day with an hour-long session of physical exercise.
When a competition nears, Das reduces the time for physical exercise and adds in more archery practice. During this time, he shoots around 700-800 arrows per day.
Dietary restrictions are not as heavy for archers but the 28-year-old archer ensures he doesn’t consume any kind of food that could that can induce lethargy.
“When you are in a competition, you need to concentrate from the start of the day to the end. So apart from extra practice, you also need to be mindful of what you eat as it can directly affect your focus,” he said.
After consistent improvement, nine international medals and an Arjuna award, Das still feels his best is yet to come.
“The best moment of my career is still ahead of me. I’m yet to achieve something that will bring tears to my eyes,” Das said.
With the Olympics now only months away, that moment could be on the horizon. India has never won an Olympic medal in archery and Das and his peers have a chance to make history in Tokyo next year.
Whether or not India succeed in ending their medal drought in archery, Atanu Das won’t stop adding to his skills. He’ll continue to improve. That’s what archery is. A relentless pursuit of the bullseye.