An unknown entity on the international shooting stage, Manu Bhaker conceded a 1.4-point lead to local favourite and Olympian Alejandra Zavala Vazquez, with one shot to go. It’s the last round and more importantly, it’s the final of the 2018 ISSF World Cup, in Guadalajara, Mexico. In case you missed it, what sets Bhaker apart is that she’s 16. It’s also her debut appearance at the event. For further context, Vasquez, a World Cup and World Cup Finals gold medallist, had started shooting in 1998, a whole four years before her opponent was even born. But Manu shot a 10.6 and pipped the veteran for the gold medal, the youngest ever Indian to achieve this feat.
“I was trailing by 1.4 points before the last shot and was concentrating on my shot. I did not know before the finals that Zavala had won the World Cup gold on two occasions and Anna (Greek shooter and the other finalist Anna Korakaki) had won the bronze in this event and also the gold medal in 10 metre in Rio,” she told the Indian Express after the final. Olympic medalists and multi-time World Cup winners like Korakaki, Celine Goberville and Heidi Diethel were all shooting under ISSF’s new format – woman shooters are also supposed to shoot 60 shots in qualification rounds, against the previous 40, beginning January 1, 2018 – for the first time. It was Bhaker’s first time for many things, too. But she remained unfazed and steamrolled past all of them.
It was reminiscent of her performance at the Senior Nationals in Kerala last year, where she shocked World Cup medallist and popular Indian shooter Heena Sidhu by breaking her record of 240.8 points, with 242.3 in the final. It was the last possible feather in her hat in terms of national tournaments, after reigning supreme in the Youth (under-18) and Junior (under-21) categories. In fact, it would only be a matter of a few weeks after the WC in Mexico that Bhaker would go on to win another significant gold, this time at the mixed 10m air pistol (with partner Anmol Jain) during the ISSF Junior World Cup in Sydney, that too with a qualification record of 770 points. She’s like one of those kids we all knew growing up, athletically gifted and trying out for every team, only much better. The child prodigy won medals in boxing, skating, thang ta (a Manipuri martial art) and tennis at the national and international level, before deciding to pursue shooting at the age of 14.
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It was within a month of taking up shooting that Manu knew what she was doing. Her father Ram Kishan Bhaker, a chief engineer in the merchant navy, must have been surprised when he was asked for Rs 1.5 lakh to buy his daughter’s first pistol. ” She is dedicated and I knew if she is asking me to invest in something, she will not take the sport lightly,” he told the Times of India. The Jhajjar girl leads a line of sprightly young shooters, like Shreya Agrawal (17), Arjun Babuta (19), Elavenil Valarivan (18), Tejas Krishna Prasad (20) and Muskan Bhanwala (16), who all contributed to India’s overall second place finish at the Junior WC. National pistol coach Jaspal Rana has groomed many of these young shooters, without the exception of another promising prospect, Yashaswini Singh Deswal. “Manu is mentally very strong. I remember that when she joined the national camp, her mother told me that she talks a lot. She is always asking questions about the sport. But I am happy to answer them. She is not in the TOPS scheme, but we need to groom talented shooters like her for the 2020 Olympics,” he told IE. With this level of confidence from coaches and a veritable stash of medals to start with, Manu Bhaker doesn’t seem like a name you would want to forget anytime soon.