Tarundeep Rai: I need to win medal at Tokyo Olympics so I can meet my son's gaze
Archer Tarundeep Rai writes about spending 2020 getting into the best shape of his life, why he needs to win a medal at next year's Games, and why he's sure the archery contingent will bring back a medal from Tokyo Olympics.
There is a tiny voice inside my head that has been growing louder and more reassuring every day. It tells me, with authority, that Indian archers will win a medal at the Tokyo Olympics next year. Pakka! This is not the empty sense of bravado that an athlete usually feels going into an Olympic year. I cannot predict which event the medal will come in. It could be the men’s team or the women’s team. Or an individual medal. But I know it is there. I know it with such certainty that I have been telling Atanu (Das) and Pravin (Jadhav) this for months. I believe that the men’s team has the best chance to win that medal at what will be my last Olympics.
I will turn 37 in a few months. For 24 of these, I have been a professional archer. Jo bhi janta hoon, archery hi janta hoon. Chaubees saal ke career main poore ragon main ghus chuka hai archery (All I know and understand is the sport of archery. Over the course of my 24-year career, the sport is now in my blood).
After these 24 years, I need to win an Olympic medal. At the same time, the country deserves it. This 24-year journey will only be complete when I win a medal at the Tokyo Games next year. I’ve sacrificed a lot personally just to play this sport for the country. My son turned nine years old this month. But I have been with him for his birthday just twice in nine years. Maybe I have not been able to be a better father than I am, or a better husband… I don’t blame archery for it. But this is the amount of love I have for the sport and this is why I need to win a medal at Tokyo. Tabhi shayad main apne bete se aankh mila paun (Maybe then I will be able to meet my son’s gaze). Maybe then I could justify why I couldn’t spend his childhood with him.
The last time I last went home, to Namchi in Sikkim, was in August 2019. Even then, it was just for a week and I had gone home after a year-long absence.
When the nationwide lockdown due to coronavirus started in March, we were all training for Tokyo Olympics. Most of my Indian teammates went home while Pravin (Jadhav) and me were the only two archers left behind at Pune’s Army Sports Institute. By this time, things had become very gloomy because it was clear that the Olympics will not happen this year.
We were also a little lost as to what to do. If someone like me, who has seen and experienced so much in my career, was so confused, I can only imagine how disoriented Pravin was at the start. Then one day we sat down and told ourselves that this is not how life can continue. The Olympics happening or not was not in our hands. coronavirus was not in our control. So we made a plan. We decided to focus on improving our fitness level and keep training on the side.
In my 24-year career, I had never had this opportunity to focus solely on improving my fitness. When I tried to do it before this, a competition would appear on the horizon, and then I would need to focus on my shooting. I think of 2020 as an opportunity. An opportunity to transform myself. An opportunity to shed any extra flab. I knew that the Olympics may not happen in 2020, but if I ignored the frustration and instead focused on my fitness, I would be able to perform better at any future competitions. I can see the results of that attitude now. My mental toughness and fitness reached a stage where they have never been before.
I was 81kg before the lockdown started. After six months of lockdown, my weight was down to 67kg as I burned fat with my workouts. I could have shed even more weight. But I needed to build muscles and gain back weight to get it to 75kg. I’m at 73kg right now. We have to consider things like the poundage of our bow, which is why we need to maintain our body weight. Poora archery jo hai who lambe race ka khel hota hai (Archery is a long-haul sport, like a marathon). You cannot just sprint to the finish line. So you need the bodyweight to sustain your form.
I remember having a flat stomach way back when I was younger. Woh jawaani ka six-pack tha. Automatic hone wala! (Back when I was younger, things like six-packs came naturally). But in the six-pack abs I have now, you can see the sweat that has gone behind sculpting it. I believe my fitness can propel my archery to the next level. I want to show the upcoming generation of archers that if you want to perform at the highest level, you don’t need a six-pack and all that, but fitness is non-negotiable. I see the younger generation that is taking up the sport. They’re all under the impression that archery is only about standing and aiming arrows at the target. But at the pinnacle of sport, the margin of error is so thin that you need to be in a state of peak fitness.
Archery is also a sport of muscle memory. If you don’t train for a week, your body starts forgetting small things that help you shoot a bulls-eye. Just to keep our muscle memory sharp, archers shoot as many as 500 or 600 arrows a day, even though you will need to shoot a maximum of 72 arrows in a tournament. This is why I was lucky to have access to ASI’s archery range during the lockdown.
Through the lockdown, I would call up other archers like Atanu who had gone home and keep talking to them about the importance of maintaining their fitness. I was also continuously monitoring them as a big brother by talking to them over the phone every day. Some days the other archers would say they would train tomorrow, but I would insist they train daily. But even as I was telling them to train daily, I also had that small niggling doubt at the back of my mind asking me what competition were we even training for.
In such times I would keep reminding myself that neither coronavirus nor competitions were in our control. Only thing in our control was staying ready so that we could hit rivals hard when competitions actually happened. Because, around the world, lockdowns had disrupted everyone’s training schedules. Every archer in the world was training with whatever improvisation they could manage, so Indian archers were no different. Now that we know that there’s an Olympics happening in July next year, we know what we are preparing for. The tiny voice inside my head won’t let me forget it. A medal to Tokyo 2021. Nothing else will do.
(Tarundeep Rai is a two-time Olympian. He was part of the men's archery team which sealed a quota for Tokyo Olympics. He spoke to Amit Kamath.)
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