Nasser Al-Attiyah: An Olympic medallist and Dakar Rally champ who juggles between shooting and racing

There are, in the world out there, professionals who play a hybrid sport called chessboxing, where competitors alternatively slug it out on the chess board and the boxing ring. Nasser Al-Attiyah's vocational choices are not quite so radical, but they make you do a double take nevertheless.

Al-Attiyah is an Olympic bronze-winning skeet shooter, who has competed in six Games so far. But there is another world the 46-year-old inhabits. He is a rally driver with two Dakar Rally titles to his credit.

Nasser Al-Attiya in action during the Men's Skeet Shooting final at the London Olympics. Getty

Nasser Al-Attiya in action during the Men's Skeet Shooting final at the London Olympics. Getty

One would think the worlds of shooting and rally driving are as distant from each other as you could imagine. Shooting relies on inner serenity. Rallying is fuelled by the rush of adrenaline. Each discipline requires different skill sets. Not to mention that shooting can be an all-consuming sport. Shooters spend months, even years, obsessing over their technique, their breathing pattern, even the thickness of their shooting boots, often at the cost of everything else. Rally drivers are no different. Just to shave 10 seconds off their timing. Or shoot a millimetre to the left. After all, both sports are all about fine margins.

Al-Attiyah should know. In the 2010 Dakar Rally, he finished second behind Spaniard Carlos Sainz, with a margin of 2’12”, the smallest gap by which anyone had won the race. Eight years ago, at the Athens Games, Al-Attiyah had heartbreakingly finished fourth in the skeet shooting event.

Not to forget that in a race as treacherous as Dakar, where drivers and riders are up against the elements of nature even more than they are against each other, a small miscalculation can prove to be fatal.

Al-Attiyah acknowledges that both sports are as different as chalk and cheese. But he has found common ground.

"In shooting you don’t really move a lot, you’re stationary. On the other hand, in rally driving you have to be aware of everything that is going on around you. Even a small thing can affect your race drastically. You need a strong body which can endure the tough conditions that you will be up against at races as testing as Dakar.

“But I love both sports equally. Both require you to have a strong mind and an extraordinary amount of focus in varying conditons," he tells Firstpost from New Delhi, where he was competing in the recently-concluded ISSF World Cup. He finished 15th in the skeet event.

"In fact, I only took up shooting because I was hoping it would help me develop my concentration and boost my rally career. But in a few days it became apparent that I wasn't doing too badly in shooting either. So I ended up doing both," he adds.

Often, those two worlds come perilously close to colliding.

In 2012, just four days after the Dakar Rally got over, Al-Attiyah rushed back to Doha to compete in the Asian Shooting Championships where quota places for the London Games were up for grabs. Al-Attiyah shot a world record 150. Or to be more specific, he shot all 150 targets. “It was an amazing day,” he gushes.

Winner and now Dakar champion, #301 Nasser Al Attiyah of Qatar. Getty

Winner and now Dakar champion, #301 Nasser Al Attiyah of Qatar. Getty

He sheepishly admits that even the bronze medal he went on to win later that year at the London Olympics came after just 10 days of serious training.

"I will not say it is the best way to approach a competition as prestigious as the Olympics. But I had no choice."

Just how does he manage to strike a balance between the two sports?

"I draw up a calendar at the start of each year detailing which events I want to participate in. That way I know which sport to concentrate on when. I stopped shooting for some time right after the London Olympics," he says.

It is not particularly surprising when the Qatari says he has dabbled in equestrian showjumping and does some archery at his farm when he gets bored. Sometimes, he also goes cycling on his mountain bike in the desert sands. Other times, he participates in 10km runs. "My fastest time is 48 minutes," he says.

He’s at an age where most athletes either have retired or are actively contemplating it. But the 46-year-old is an outlier. And then some. After all, despite having achieved so much in his lifetime in both sports, there is still one target that keeps him going.

"I had two dreams. Winning the Dakar Rally and earning an Olympic gold medal. I was really disappointed with my performance at the Rio Olympics. But I don’t let dejection linger in my mind for too long. I forget about it by the next day. That elusive gold medal is what keeps me going. At the Tokyo Olympics, that's what I will be gunning for."

If he does that, maybe, just maybe, he can then try his hands at some other sport. Like chessboxing.

Updated Date: Mar 07, 2017 09:43 AM

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