He’s still a junior, has the 10-metre air-rifle junior world record to his name, and is aiming for an Olympic Gold. He’s a big boy now, says Rajesh Mishra, of this young shooter who could bring that elusive Olympic medal back with him, next time around.
In the 10-Metre Air Rifle Shooting event the target is 45.4mm in size. But that’s for you and me. When Abhinav Bindra aligns his stance, neck-eye in perfect co-ordination, head held still, and takes aim all he manages to see is a .5 mm dot. For that’s where you score 10 points for each shot. On an average he hits the bull’s eye at a strike rate of 99%. That gives you some idea of the level of precision involved in the sport this young shooter has been winning accolades world over.
Two years ago Abhinav scored 596 out of 600 at a Munich tournament. The Junior World Record still stands in his name. But he has moved on. The 19-year old lad from Chandigarh is now counted among the big boys of the 10-metre air rifle scene. Though still a junior (below 21), he’s ranked in the top 10 in the Men’s category. Over the last two seasons Abhinav has beaten the likes of Slovenian Olympic Gold Medallist Rajmond Debrie and the Dutch World Record holder Boshman. Along the way he has lifted pretigious titles like the Nissan Cup and the Deng Haag Cup on the European circuit. “He’s a truly world class shooter. He has reached a stage where on a given day he might just walk away with the gold in any of the major tournaments,” says Indian national coach Sunny Thomas on the eve of the World Championship slated for July 2002 at Lahti, Finland.
In shooting at the highest level it’s all about peaking at the right time. Being razor sharp when it counts the most. In late February on his return from the European circuit he told me, “I shot well but my best this season is yet to come. In a way I’m happy. For it augurs well for the bigger tournaments round the corner.” Though it’s virtually impossible to time peak performance for a specific period, men like Tiger Woods get it invariably right. Whether Bindra will make his mark —at the World Championships, Asiad and Commonwealth we’ll have to wait and see. The signs are good though.
Different people have different approaches. The Chinese, for example, don’t shoot that often in second rung tournaments. Concentrating only on the very best, under the premise that the shooters will be fresh for the big occasion. The Europeans on the other hand follow the dictum ‘more exposure to competition, the better prepared you are to succeed’. Abhinav has chalked out his own approach that lays more or less equal stress on both tournament play and individual training. “Training in my sport is very important. In competition you replicate what you do in training. So while training there are no half measures. I take 60 shots in the stipulated time. I completely simulate match conditions in practice. I know in my mind that if I shoot 600/600 in practice, there’s every chance of me repeating the feat in competition. Training is sacrosanct,” quips the champion shooter.
It’s worthwhile to recall what Sunil Gavaskar once said about Kapil Dev: “Even at the nets Kapil made sure he never stepped over the popping crease. Kapil took that practice into match conditions and seldom bowled no-balls.” That he reached the top of bowlers’ summit is no surprise. “I’ve never seen a more hard working shooter in my life. At his age, you’ve got to be behind shooters to concentrate, and not take training lightly. With Abhinav that’s never a problem. He never skips training. On the contrary there are times when you’ve to hold him back. Such is his itch for the gun,” points Sunny Thomas.
Abhinav grew up with guns in his hands. His family shuttles between Chandigarh and Dehra Dun, where they were originally based and still have a farmhouse. “Right from the beginning we’ve had 7-8 guns in our family. Dr. Bindra’s father was in the Army, hence a few guns. And my family based out of Dehra Dun too had a few. You know how it is in UP,” says mother Kanwarjit.
Bindra Sr. throws further light on his son’s early love for guns. “As a child he’d never be satisfied with toy guns. At a very early age he showed tremendous interest in guns. As a five-year old he’d watch me in rapt attention whenever I aired and cleaned my rifles. Initially he started out shooting beer bottles at our farm, where he spent his early years. Within no time he was shooting smaller cough syrup bottles. And then when he started knocking off tiny liqueur bottles, I realised the kid was out of the ordinary.”
By the age of 12, Abhinav was already shooting at the competition level. Going from district level to state and national levels within a couple of years. He shot into the limelight by shooting a perfect 600/600 at a local event as a 13-year old. Since the competition wasn’t approved by the International Shooting Union, his name didn’t enter the record books at the early stage of his career. But he did show a glimpse of his talent. And in an interview that he gave his temperament was on display, “I am not out to please anyone; I know what I’ve achieved.” This singular pursuit for perfection remains his trademark.
“If you tie your lace very tight it might destabilise you. If your head isn’t balanced you are off target, if you inhale or exhale at the wrong time then again you come back with a sorry tally.”
Shooting, like golf, is more about competing against yourself than an opponent. “It’s a lonely sport. It’s just you and the target. The computer records your tally, which you get to see after finishing your round,” he says. His sport has shaped his personality. He loves nothing better than driving the pellets into the dot from 10 metres. Though he enjoys cars and designer clothes, girls are yet to become a priority in life. He claims he doesn’t want to take any chances with his training schedules. The only thing he’s romancing at this stage are his guns. And you dare not venture close to them. For an otherwise calm and collected man, he has no patience with anyone toying with his guns.
Being an affluent agro-based industrialist’s son has helped. On realising his son’s potential Bindra Sr. packed his son off to the Mecca of shooters —German School of Rifle Shooting in Frankfurt. He reckoned very early that competition at home wasn’t good enough to push him to the collective Bindra family goal—an Olympic gold—no less. And over the past half a decade Team Bindra has left no stone unturned. Mother Kanwarjit started travelling with him when he hit the international circuit at the age of 14, while father played manager.
Today Abhinav has a crack team helping him, headed by coach Gaby Buehlmann, a former Olympic champion and World Record holder. But the expenses are increasing. At a minimum of around Rs 1 crore annually, even the Bindras are feeling the pinch. Laments Bindra Sr., who has approached many big companies unsuccessfully for sponsorship: “Here, you should first climb Mt. Everest, then people welcome you. Very few support you in the process of reaching the peak.” But he’s determined not to let his son suffer in any way. For the Olympic dream is an all consuming passion!
The one word that keeps popping up in Abhinav’s vocabulary is ‘technical’ when describing his event. But just how technical is it you wonder! He tries to help you comprehend what he is up against when he is shooting: “If you tie your lace very tight it might destabilise you. If your head isn’t balanced you are off target, if you inhale or exhale at the wrong time then again you come back with a sorry tally.” You suddenly realise when the target is a virtual speck at .5mm all these factors make helluva difference. “His training in Germany has helped him in no small measure. Competing against the best has taken the awe element out. There’s no fear. He knows he’s one amongst them. He has also mastered the finer nuances of shooting. Tactical things like not taking a break when firing in good rhythm. And in match conditions he’s alive to these situations,” says Thomas.
Until a decade back Indian shooters were Asian and Commonwealth contenders. But with Jaspal Rana’s 1994 triumph at the Milan World Championship the stage is set for an encore this month in Finland at the world championship. If he does come back with a gold, at least a part of the Bindra family’s dreams would have been realised. The main target for this young man with a minus 1.75 vision is of course Athens, the site for the 2004 Olympics.
This article was first published in the July 2002 issue