Manu Bhaker sits casually on her delicately done chaise lounge, flipping pages of history. A few months back, the Class 12 student and ace shooter switched from biology to arts mid-session, and is racing against the clock to cram her syllabus before the CBSE board exams that start soon after the ISSF World Cup that begins in Delhi on February 20.
“This is keeping me busy. I have no time to dwell on the World Cup yet,” Manu says, holding up her history textbook. Pressure, she says, is not for her to take, not at this moment. If it’s an act of bravado, it’s an act done well, though one hopes the caprice of youth is still untouched by the trappings of glory.
There are moments of honesty, when she drops her guard and allows a glimpse into her teenaged world, like when she raves about her Instagram account and the earnest desire to post pictures there. But largely, Manu’s business-like demeanour paints a single-tone image of an artiste hopelessly committed to her craft.
Manu will lead India’s charge in the year’s first World Cup in the capital, where she will participate in three events in the pistol category — 10m, 25m, and mixed team. With Olympic quotas up for grabs, the importance of the tournament cannot be stated enough.
“At times, the thought of Olympic quota does hit me, and frankly, there are a lot of things going on in my mind. The board exams, the World Cup, the quota places... sometimes I don’t know what to do,” she admits, reminding the world that she is still 16. This, however, is a life that she has chosen, and she has no regrets.
“I don’t miss what one would call a ‘normal’ childhood. I am not into video games or social media, though I am fond of Instagram. I like clicking and posting pictures, but at the end of the day, after practice and physical exercises, you’re too spent to indulge in social networking,” she says.
This will also be the first world event for Manu at home, and playing in front of a capacity crowd is always a double-edged swordol
Manu, though, is happy with her preparation and reckons she is a better shooter than she was in 2018 — her breakout year that saw her win multiple gold medals across Senior World Cup, Junior World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Youth Olympics.
It was also a chastening year for her, for it gave the youngster her first brush with failure and public criticism. After she couldn’t win a medal at the Asian Games and the World Championships, questions were raised over her big-stage temperament. That her score of 593 in qualifying was a record at the Asiad and missed the current world record by a solitary point, that the level of competition at the World Championships is infinitely higher than the Commonwealth Games, and that same scores were good enough to win her gold at the preceding events were continually ignored.
It did affect Manu, but realisation was not too far. “That’s what sports teaches you — dealing with failures,” she says.
“When you win, you celebrate; when you lose, you get down to work. This maturity comes with time, but I understood it early in my career due to my long association with various sports. Jaspal (Rana) sir and my parents helped me understand this and overcome the disappointment.”
And move on she did. In October last year, she became the first Indian shooter to win a gold medal at the Youth Olympics. More than the ‘comeback’ though, being chosen as the flag-bearer of the Indian contingent in Buenos Aires filled her with pride. “It was such an honour. To be chosen among so many athletes to lead the country at that stage was surreal. It was more memorable than winning the gold,” she says.
Manu has also taken to yoga and meditation to calm her nerves, and the results are showing. “I am happier and more positive these days.”
Her scores have improved too. She consistently shoots around 580-585 points now as compared to the 571-575 that she averaged last year. “Nothing can guarantee a medal though,” she says.
Later this month, when she takes aim at the 0.5mm blur in the capital’s Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range, Manu’s mental and physical strength will be put to the test. Her hyperactive teenaged mind will, once again, quietly strive to slip into that elusive zone that shooters operate in, sieving belief from bluster and pride from pressure.“It’s never easy to shut yourself out in competitions. You train to handle such situations, but only an athlete knows what he or she feels when the time comes to perform,” she says.
Manu would hope those words are not needed. Instead, considering her newfound predilection for the subject, India would want some history from its shooting star, who clearly has more than one exam to ace.
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