Commonwealth Games 2018: Jitu Rai's 10m air pistol gold could rekindle Olympic ambitions after confidence-hit at Rio

When it got to the business end of the event, India’s ace shooter Jitu Rai played a steady hand to secure India’s second gold in the sport. Having finished fourth in the qualifying of the 10m air pistol event, the 30-year-old rose to the occasion in the final, leading from start to finish and clinching victory with a Commonwealth Games record of 235.1.

It was Rai’s first gold in the 10m air pistol at a multi-sport event. He had won the 50m air pistol gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and will be itching to defend that title in a couple of days.

While veteran Rai was expected to strike gold, fellow Indian Om Prakash Mitharval gave the country another reason to celebrate as he returned with bronze. The 22-year-old, who idolises Rai, had equalled the Games record in qualifying: shooting 584 points to level with India’s Samaresh Jung (2006 Melbourne Games). Mitharval had been in silver medal position after 20 shots, but an 8.4 on the next shot saw him drop down and eventually finish with a tally of 214.3.

 Commonwealth Games 2018: Jitu Rais 10m air pistol gold could rekindle Olympic ambitions after confidence-hit at Rio

Jitu Rai celebrates after winning gold in the men's 10m air pistol event. Reuters

Australia’s Kerry Bell, with a score of 233.5, took the silver medal.

“My belief was unflinching,” the Rai told the media later. “Two-three low scores pulled me down but then my belief helped me. That makes me really happy. So, I was confident of covering it in the finals and I never back off. I am reaping the rewards of all the hard word work I have put in during training.”

The glitter of gold at the Commonwealth Games will do little to gloss over Rai’s disappointment at the 2016 Rio Olympics. The shy army man had started out as India’s best medal hope on the back of some stunning international performances, but finished eighth in 10m air pistol and 12th in 50m air pistol. But the gold at Gold Coast might well serve as a restart to his Olympic ambitions.

After all, Rai is no stranger to new beginnings. Born in Sankhuwasabha district in Nepal, “in the middle of a forest,” as he once described it, Rai joined the Indian Army in 2006 as a teenager, to help his family meet ends. Now a Naib Subedar in the 11th Gorkha Rifles, Rai, by his own admission wasn’t too keen on the sport to begin with.

“In 2007 I joined the Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army. Actually I was not too interested in shooting,” Rai had said in an interview with Olympic Gold Quest, his benefactors.

“I had never even seen anyone shooting. Army coach GR Garbaraj Rai ‘ne danda laga ke karaya shooting’ (made me take up shooting by wielding a stick). The first gun I used was a 9mm pistol. In 2009, I went to the Army Marksmanship Unit in Mhow where I was not selected in the army team and was sent back to my Lucknow unit. After that setback, I worked very hard day in day out to improve my skills in the 10m air pistol event. I started free pistol only in 2013.”

Having established himself as a premier marksman, he returned to Mhow and started proving his mettle on the international stage. In 2014, at the ISSF World Cup in Maribor, Rai won a gold in 10m air pistol and a silver in 50m air pistol to become the first Indian to win two medals at a World Cup. He followed it up with a silver in 50m air pistol at the 2014 World Championships and returned with two medals at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games (gold in 50m, bronze in 10m air pistol).

But the expectations of that medal haul seemed to have weighed heavily on Rai at the Olympics. He cracked under the pressure and is painstakingly seeking to rebuild his reputation.

Last year, Rai claimed two golds — 10m air pistol mixed team event with Heena Sindhu and 50m air pistol — at the World Cup in New Delhi. But he has struggled to consistently hit the high notes. At the recent World Cup in Guadaljara, Mexico, a new generation of Indian shooters were ushered in and the country returned with a glut of nine medals, including four golds. Rai's contribution was a bronze.

On Monday, Rai once again moved out of the shadows to reassert his status as one of the country’s best shooters. He showed courage under fire, making up for a weak start in qualifying by jumping into lead after the first stage itself with a score of 49.7 and led the tables at 100.4 after 10 shots.

Mitharval, who had won the team gold with India’s teen sensation Manu Bhaker at Guadaljara, held steady in third place at 98.1. As he has done for a few years now, the army man from Rajasthan, followed Rai’s lead.

“He is a workaholic and spends seven to nine hours in practice. If an established shooter like him does that, then we youngsters have to pull up our socks and train for at least six hours,” Mitharval had once said of Rai, who is currently ranked four in the world. India was in a position for a 1-2 finish once again, but a lapse by Mitharval in the closing stages helped Bell sneak into second.

Rai’s diligence, though, paid off as he coolly crossed the finish line with identical score of 9.2 off his last two shots. He unabashedly smiled his way through the medal ceremony, giving special attention to the new piece of gold around his neck. The Olympic peak still looms large over the unassuming man, but this performance may just will him for a repeat journey.

Follow all updates on Day 5 of Commonwealth Games 2018 here

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Updated Date: Apr 09, 2018 15:53:35 IST