Top Gun

Ace shooter Gagan Narang takes us through the nuances of the game as he traces his struggle to reach the Olympics

My Olympic journey isn’t just mine. It is also theirs who have shaped me into an Olympian. It is a story that began with the obsessive quest for excellence and the need to be obstinate about it. Four years ago, when I participated for the third time in the Olympic Games in London, I did not think beyond competing. But in these four years I have become wiser and stronger in spirit – and I attribute this to my experience at the London Olympics. It was a wonderful fortnight’s experience for us. There were many valuable lessons to be learnt – the values of hard work, commitment to excellence, a never-saydie attitude and the resilience of the human spirit. All of which transcend sports.

And now, as I prepare for my fourth Olympics, I understand the value of applying each of these lessons from sports to life, and vice-versa. Also, competing for the fourth time in the Olympics at the age of 33 means that I am in the prime of my sporting life, with the best opportunity to turn silver (won at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow) into gold. The quest had begun with the quota win in Fort Benning (at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in the United States) a year ago. This was a late entry for me, as I was the first Indian to win shooting quotas in the previous two Olympics. But I was determined to grab it at a time when I had fallen off the National Rifle Association of India’s radar for the 10-m Air Rifle category. Life had become a quest for reclaiming the magic.

London Olympics has been the high point in my career till now. After my failure in Athens and Beijing, I had landed in London knowing that I had done my homework well. I had not faltered there. I remember the cool breeze of the July morning when I stepped out of Heathrow. The trip felt different. As the sun filtered through the clouds, I couldn’t help notice that the iconic London skyline looked brighter than usual. July 30, 2012, was my date with destiny. The venue was the Royal Artillery Barracks.

After a rollercoaster ride, I shot 598 to seal a qualification spot in the finals. That is the highest score of an Indian shooter in the Air Rifle category at the Olympics. I had aimed for the yellow metal and was in a hurry – to stay ahead of my closest competitor, to close out the match. When China’s Wang Tao hit 10.4 in the final shot, I knew I was within striking distance of a medal. I said a quiet prayer and the bullet hit 10.7. The moment had come and the long wait was finally over!

I can still feel it – and when I relive it, I become nervous. No two moments in life are similar, and I have never felt quite this range of emotions before. When I look back, I know I was grateful, relieved and tired, but not ecstatic, because it was just a vindication of my abilities, nothing in greater degree than that. I was, of course, overwhelmed by the joy it sparked off at home. My parents and friends told me that it had really opened the floodgates for Indians, as medals began to pour in.

But London merely was a milestone in my Olympic journey, which is why Rio becomes important. The Olympics are about soaking in the spirit. It is about the 100-m dash in athletics, about the 10/10 in artistic gymnastics and about breaking records in the pool. It is also the quest for scoring a perfect 600 at the highest stage. And that is what my aim will be. At Rio, I plan to participate in three different events – 10 m Air Rifle, 50 m Rifle Prone and 50 m Rifle 3 Positions.

Over the years, the rules of the competition have changed. The rule of countback that got me out ofbusiness in Beijing is no more. The finals are played under a new set of rules, there is a new breed of competitors, and yet the Olympics are also about the Phelps (American swimmer Michael Phelps), the Bolts (Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt), the Bindras (Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra) and the Lochtes (American swimmer Ryan Lochte), celebrating art and excellence. It is also a melting pot of cultures, where people come and exchange pins. Pin collectors are an integral part of the games, and so are the volunteers, who gather from every nook and corner. Their contribution to the game may not be visible to many, but it is immense.

And then there are the energetic coaches, who are constantly pushing their wards towards excellence and supporting them when defeat comes. And mine is no exception. Stanislas Lapidus steered me to my Olympic glory in London. He was the national coach then. My Olympic journey would remain incomplete without the mention of mentors at Olympic Gold Quest, who made sure I had the uninterrupted support of my coach and trainers, and the best ammunition and equipment.

I also salute the Maharajah and am grateful to Air India for believing in my skills and supporting me all the way, more so when I needed it. I am proud to be an Air Indian. I have always maintained that I am a product of the system, and my story is the success of a system that has churned out many like me. Hence my quest to change the colour of the medal in Rio is also for those whose enormous support and good wishes have made my Olympic journey such a memorable one.

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