Ganemat Sekhon won a bronze medal – a feat that is often unfortunately associated with a phrase like ‘settled for’ – at the ongoing ISSF World Cup in Delhi. This particular medal was an important one because it was India’s first ever senior World Cup medal in women’s skeet shooting.

The 20-year-old scripted history in her first senior final, a fitting extension of her exploits at the junior level, where she had similarly won India’s first medal at the ISSF Junior World Cup in 2018 in Sydney.

Cut to March 2021, she topped her individual bronze with two more medals – a gold in skeet mixed team with Angad Singh Bajwa and a silver along with teammates Parinaaz Dhaliwal and Kartiki Singh Shaktawat in the women’s team event.

After a pandemic-interrupted year without competition, limited training opportunities and an indifferent outing in 2021’s season-opening Cairo Shotgun World Cup, this was a significant performance for Sekhon. She has been a promising talent at national shotgun level and senior international success seemed to be on the horizon.

Helped by the familiarity of the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range where nationals and selection trials are held, with her biggest supporter – her father – watching, she took that final step and achieved what no Indian woman skeet shooter had done before.

“Because we were shooting on the home range, I was very comfortable from the start. It was my best score to qualify for the final,” Sakhon told after finishing her campaign with three medals.

“But when I got to my last round I got nervous and excited and all of those emotions were coming in, I started missing a few shots. The shooters around me were also missing and that made me realise that this was an opportunity I shouldn’t let go,” she added, recounting her individual final.

Sekhon's three medals at the ISSF World Cup | Image Credit: Ganemat Sekhon

She shot a score of 40 in the final following a career-best 117 out of 125 in qualifying. Ahead of the final, national coach Mansher Singh guided her with the mental aspect, while her personal coach Piero Genga, who couldn’t travel from Italy because of the pandemic, was helping her on call.

It was only after that she became aware of her milestone. “It was a great feeling to realise that I am the first Indian woman to win a [World Cup] medal. I was the first junior also to win it in Australia, so it felt good.”

The confidence from that first medal carried into her next two events and she struck gold in mixed team, extending India’s recent dominance at the World Cups to shotgun as well.

“I felt very confident and I felt like working harder and being more focused because it made me believe in myself more… In the mixed team final, Angad played really well. We make a very good team, in Doha also we made an Asian record together,” she said.

Few women in the field

Shotgun shooting is generally not as prolific for India as rifle and pistol; the participation in skeet is even lesser among women due to a number of reasons: the limited infrastructure, the expense of the sport or even the specifications of the discipline.

The 20-year-old hoped her medal is a starting point for other women while talking about the challenges to pursue it more regularly.

“According to me, [the fewer numbers] is because there are only three ranges in India which are at an international level. If you see, our trap and skeet shooters are mostly from Delhi or from Punjab. I am the only girl from Chandigarh, some of my friends wanted to try but didn’t want to travel that far,” she explained.

“Also, a lot of people don’t know about shotgun as much. I know many people who have seen rifle and pistol shooting, get awed once they come on the shotgun range, saying they had no idea there is this side to the sport as well. I hope me winning this medal might encourage people, maybe we will have a range in Chandigarh or other places as well,” she added.

India's silver-winning women's skeet team

For young Sekhon, it was the thrill of the outdoor event and her father’s motivation that drove her to the unusual discipline. The shooter from Punjab took up the shotgun when she was around 14 years old, and understandably the weapon was too heavy while the recoil too tough for her at the beginning. But she built up her strength to wield it.

“My father took me to the range in Patiala in 2015 and compared to all other sports I fell in love with skeet by just watching it… how the target moved, the cloud burst was so interesting, the speed of it was not something you see every day, even if the gun was hard to hold then,” she said of her initiation into the sport.

Can the physical challenge of shotgun be a deterrent in any way?

“Maybe that is also an issue. Even when I started shooting, I was very thin and couldn’t hold the gun for too long but I worked on my training and got used to the weight. People when they see the recoil ask me if it hurts when I go so back but I somehow enjoy it,” she said.

The other more glaring issue is the expense of shotgun shooting, which also prompted Sekhon to be more conscious of her choice.

“It is an expensive sport so my father told me in the beginning that if you really want to do it, you should take it up and be serious about it. And I was. We didn’t have any external help but my father really believed in me, he agreed to pay for such an expensive sport and motivated me,” she said.

“In the beginning, it was very tough and I would be so disheartened if I didn’t win but that’s part of the game now, I realise.”

Sekhon stays in Chandigarh and is currently coached by Italian Genga but they can’t travel because of the pandemic. The pandemic and lockdown was both a blessing and a curse for the youngster, as the international shooting calendar was wiped out.

“In the beginning, it felt like a good break but then we came to know the lockdown was going to be there for longer, it got a little frustrating to not be able to shoot. I was practising at home and working out, which is good in a way because I could work more towards training because we don’t get that much time once the season starts. But the negative bit was that I couldn’t train with my coach,” she said

There was a big positive to come though, the chance to train at a stretch at home which proved pivotal.

“After the lockdown eased, the Sports Authority of India did a great thing, they gave us ammo to shoot in our own range. Before they would give us ammo in Delhi but getting ammo at home which was very helpful. I was able to train mentally and physically better while being home than in Delhi,” she explained.

An Olympic place at Tokyo is unlikely, but Sekhon wants to build on her medal-winning momentum for the rest of the season, details of which is as yet unclear due to the pandemic. She also had to decide whether it would be financially viable to go to Italy to train this season.

But no matter what comes next, a memorable first medal and the belief that comes with it will give Sekhon a huge boost when she steps onto the shotgun range from here.