Note: The article was published first in May, 2021. On July 29, Atanu Das stunned former Olympic champion and archery legend in the round of 32 at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

For Indian archer Atanu Das, success has taken its own sweet time to arrive. After over a decade of sustained efforts, he won his first individual World Cup gold medal at the Archery World Cup Stage 1 in Guatemala last month.

Right from his junior days, Das has had setbacks that he’s had to fight his way out of. From being rejected by the Tata Archery academy to narrowly missing out on Olympic qualification in 2012, Das has prevailed to remain among India’s top male archers.

And when it seemed Das was about to hit his greatest heights, the Covid-19 pandemic put his dreams on hold. Das had won a bronze medal just before the pandemic in 2019 at the Asian Championships but with lockdown in force in the country, the archers were left with no option but to stop training.

Even when it resumed, the training conditions were a far cry from the actual tournament setting. Hardly ideal preparation for the Olympics.

Thus the World Cup in Guatemala that happened in April 2021, attained added significance for Das who was desperate for an individual gold medal at the stage. But playing a tournament of such magnitude was never going to be easy.

“Playing a tournament after such a long time, I was nervous and excited at the same time,” Atanu Das told in an online interaction.

“The tournament setting with the audience, cameras and timer puts a different kind of pressure on you but in my case, I was the last among the Indians to play the final. Everyone before me had won, so there was obviously more pressure on me to continue the winning trend,” he added.

But despite the challenges, Atanu Das came up trumps. Holding his nerves in a tense final, he beat Spain’s Daniel Castro 6-4 to claim his first individual World Cup medal.

“I was very tense in the first round. But as I held the arrow I told myself that I need to live in the present moment and not think about the past or the future. All my focus was on implementing things I was doing in training. That focus helped ease the nerves a bit and after the first round, I was quite stable,” Das said.

Growing difficulties of chaotic times

Battling lack of proper preparation and his own expectations, Das knew he had to make the most of the limited number of competitions available to him before the Olympics. To make matters worse, India at the time was dealing with severe impacts of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The news of the loss of thousands of lives to the virus was hardly the information he would have wanted to process during such a crucial period.

“We were quite far away and had decided not to get distracted by external factors but the news coming out of India was quite shocking. We were hearing about the cases growing rapidly and people dying. We were trained to not let it impact us but it was quite challenging,” he said.

The pandemic meant Das had to make an 86-hour long journey back to India from Guatemala. It was made more stressful by the fear of catching the virus at a crucial juncture in their preparations for the Tokyo Olympics.

“We were quite concerned about the journey. None of us can really afford to miss out on training and with so many halts and long travel duration, we were worried about it. But fortunately, none of us were affected,” he said after reaching their base in Pune.

The Indian archers were set to take part in the World Cup Stage 2 in Switzerland but visa problems meant they had to give it a miss. Now they just have one tournament, the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris in June before the Olympics.

“I’m always analysing my performances. I made a few mistakes in the semi-finals and finals that I was hoping to immediately work on in the second World Cup in Switzerland, but now that we are not going I’ll have to do it in Paris which is a month away. It’s not ideal but there’s nothing much we can do,” he said.

Das along with the other archers are camped at the Army Sports Institute in Pune and the 29-year-old archer has revealed that their lives are pretty much restricted to the training ground and their hostel rooms.

“Right now our lives are all about going from our rooms to the training ground and coming back. Nothing else. With the pandemic, we don’t want to take any chances. If we have to keep our Olympic dreams on course, we have to accept this lifestyle,” Das said.

With the new Covid-19 variant in Maharastra much more infectious and deadly, the archers are always with a sword dangling over their heads. Their worst nightmare being catching the infection very close to the Olympics.

“We get these thoughts about what will happen if we get the virus close to Olympics. It’s quite scary, to be honest. But we are learning to cope with it. We are following all protocols however tough they are as we know what’s at stake for us,” he added.

Focus on Tokyo 2020

For Das, his real journey of becoming a top-level archer started after the Rio Olympics in 2016 when he realised the importance of developing a strong mindset. He has seen been working very hard on the mental aspect of his game and feels his current self is a vastly updated version of the archer that played in the last Olympics.

“I am a much-improved athlete now. I have a lot more control over my mind. In this World Cup, I dealt with negative emotions quite well but I must admit that there were occasions when I got distracted. From now to the Olympics, my efforts would be to eliminate all lapses in concentration,” Das said.

The 29-year-old has maintained that the best moment of his career is still ahead of him, one that will leave him in tears of joy. The moment he clinched the World Cup gold didn’t make his eyes wet as aggression was the predominant emotion at the time. Maybe, those tears are being saved for Tokyo.

In what will be the biggest competition of his career so far, Atanu Das’ preparations for the Olympics have been hampered in every way possible. But having had a taste of winning in this chaotic present, he’s striving for an even brighter future.