Down memory lane: How Suma Shirur and her peers paved the way for India's shooting revolution

As India’s shooting stars strut out at the ISSF World Cup in New Delhi this week, hoping to bag Olympics quotas at the year’s first qualifying event, Suma Shirur will watch on silently from the sidelines. One of the architects of India’s shooting revolution, the 44-year-old Shirur is now helping in building a new generation as the High-Performance Coach for the junior rifle team.

“It is so different from our times,” says Shirur ahead of the World Cup. “There is a ten-fold improvement in the sport. The attitude has undergone a sea change. Nowadays, qualifying for the Olympics is not the target, shooters, however young, are aiming for medals.”

India have already secured two quota places for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, through Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil, in the 10m air rifle event. But 16 quota places overall are on offer at the ISSF World Cup, which begins in New Delhi on 20 February, and much will be expected from the Indian shooters, including the high-flying teen trio of Anish Bhanwala, Saurabh Chaudhary, and Manu Bhaker.

When Shirur stumbled upon the sport in 1990, Indian shooters had none of the success or the swagger.

“There was hardly any awareness about the sport back then,” she says. “I first held a rifle when I was in college (first year BSc) as part of our NCC (National Cadet Corps) training. I didn’t even know it was an Olympic sport. It looked exciting and I loved it, that’s how I started in the sport. But people already know so much about the sport now before they enter. Everyone knows that the only individual gold medal we have won at the Olympics has been in shooting. Those are the ambitions they come in with. It’s all very professional; parents want to enter their children in the field hoping they will win medals.”

Down memory lane: How Suma Shirur and her peers paved the way for Indias shooting revolution

Indian shooter Suma Shirur takes aim during the final stages of the ten metre rifle section of India's 51st National Shooting Championship in 2008. AFP

Having founded the Lakshya Shooting Club in 2006 in Navi Mumbai, Shirur had seen the wheels gradually turn into motion in the sport, at the grassroots. While parents were once reluctant to even acknowledge shooting as a sport, they are now willing to spend exorbitant amounts to help their kids stay at the cutting edge of the sport.

“My first rifle, I don’t even know what it was,” says Shirur. “It was so old and outdated! But shooting equipment was very expensive at the time. We had to import everything from Germany. For the first few years, six of us shared one rifle, three of us shared one jacket!

“Nowadays, if you are a member of a shooting club, you can buy an air rifle off the shelf. There are Indian companies manufacturing shooting jackets and trousers. Parents have no qualms in buying the best equipment for their kids. In fact, we have to hold them back. We tell them to wait for six months, see how good their kid is, whether they have the potential before they invest so much in their career. We wasted a lot of time on just the basic stuff.”

Shirur remembers the time she had to convince her parents to buy her an air rifle. “At the time, a basic would cost about Rs 2.5 lakh, which was a lot! My parents didn’t know a lot about shooting, because there weren’t any success stories before us. The thing about sport is there are no guarantees. But I needed the rifle to give myself the best shot. I pleaded with them. I told them, ‘When I get married, you are going to make jewellery for me. Instead of that, invest that money in my career right now, I will pay for the jewellery later.’ But as it happened they did end up paying for my rifle and the jewellery.”

Applying for and getting import licenses was another long procedure. In all, it would take them about one year to procure ammunition from abroad.

Finding the best tools of the trade was a problem, so was finding well-equipped shooting ranges. To practice for their 50m events, they would cut targets and paste it at 25 metres.

“Shooting is also a very technical sport,” continues Shirur. “At the time, there weren’t too many coaches and not a lot of know-how.” At the beginning of her career though, Shirur, along with other prominent shooters of her generation like Anjali Bhagwat, received guidance from Navy marksman Sanjay Chakravarthi.

“He made sure our basics were strong,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of scientific training; there was no concept of a sports psychologist. We always spent more than we earned. But we were extremely driven.”

India's Anjali Bhagwat (R) and teammate Suma Shirur pose with their air rifles after the women's 10-metre Air Rifle shooting event at the 14th Asian Games in Busan in 2002. AFP

India's Anjali Bhagwat (R) and teammate Suma Shirur pose with their air rifles after the women's 10-metre Air Rifle shooting event at the 14th Asian Games in Busan in 2002. AFP

Being from the Services, Chakravarthi also instilled a sense of discipline and dedication into his wards. Shooters like Shirur and Bhagwat were also an anomaly, simply because they were women in man’s world.

“It was a completely male-dominated sport,” says Shirur. “We were a matter of curiosity to them. More than discrimination, it was about seeing what we could do. Gradually that curiosity turned into respect. It took time and it was only after we became pros that we were accepted by the shooting world. Our coach always used to tell us to dress appropriately, not because we were women, but he said we should always look professional if we wanted people to take us seriously.”

Shirur was part of the first wave of success for Indian shooting. In 2002, she created history by winning a gold medal in 10m air rifle pairs (with Bhagwat) at the Manchester Commonwealth Games. She followed it up with a silver in the 10m air rifle individual event. At the Asian Games in Busan that year, she won a silver in the 10m air rifle team event.

At the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, 14 of India’s 30 gold medals came in shooting. That got the ball rolling for the sport. In 2004, at the Athens Olympics, India’s medal came from shooting, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver in the double trap event. Four years later, in Beijing, Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian to clinch an individual gold Olympic medal when he won the 10m air rifle event.

It was in 2004 that Shirur scaled the biggest high. At the 2004 Asian Shooting Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Shirur scored a maximum of 400 points in qualification to become a joint world record holder at the event.

Athletes like Shirur and Bhagwat not only opened the doors for women in the sport, but they also laid a mark. Not bound to traditional clichés, Shirur returned to the sport after her marriage and then the birth of her children to keep pursuing her dream.

“There was no one before us, we were the ones who had to raise the bar,” says Shirur. “First to 380, then 390 and ultimately to 400 out of 400.

“Indian shooting is now in a very good place, there is so much awareness, interest, funding, many more coaches. Youngsters coming into the sport start on a strong note now because there is a formal set up already. What taken them one year used to take us ten years. It took one whole generation; our struggles, our triumph to get there.”

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 14:53:41 IST

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