The Tokyo Olympics was one of the worst stages that Deepali Deshpande has seen in her long career, first as India’s shooter and then as the national coach. Times were uncertain. Covid has disrupted the preparation and training of the Indian firing squad even though the prospects for a medal were sky high.
The result was a devastating blow. The hyped-up shooters returned empty-handed from Tokyo. Forget about not winning a medal, only one shooter, Saurabh Chaudhary in the air pistol, could qualify for the final. This was the same group that won World Cup gold medals and shot world record scores. The Covid situation — no training camps, competition, and lack of planning for a long time — played a big role, affecting their performances.
Deepali, as one of the top national coaches, faced the heat. She was not retained after the Olympics. She decided to focus entirely on her own trainees. Lessons from the Tokyo dispute fueled her determination.
The Mumbai-based coach’s hard work is paying off. Five of her trainees — Swapnil Kusale, Akhil Sheoran, Shriyanka Sadangi, Sift Kaur Samra and Arjun Babuta — have secured quotas for the country for the Paris Olympics. All four available quotas in 50m 3-post rifle positions — a specialist in Deepali’s case — went to her trainees.
“I expected this result. I am working with them with a very focused approach for the Olympic Games in Paris. The hard lessons that Tokyo taught me helped me plan better,” she says.
As someone who has played a key role in shaping India’s junior program since 2012, Deepali knows the current team very well. Some of the experienced rifle shooters like experienced Anjum Moudgil — 2018 World Championship silver medalist — rose under the guidance of Deepali.
“I have been training with them since 2012 but as my responsibility grew with the national teams, first with the juniors and then with the seniors from 2018, I could not give them individual attention. And shooting is a sport where you need to give. time for them separately because each of them may have their own problems.”
One thing Deepali was sure of after Tokyo; The quota places will be won by shooters from the current draw.
“There are only three years in this Olympics cycle and it is difficult for a newcomer to come in this short period of time and win quota places. So, I focused on those who have been there since 2012– Swapnil, Akhil, Shriyanka, Arjun , Anjum — they have completed a junior degree and have the experience.
“Really, the preparation didn’t stop for us. It was a continuation from Tokyo. I just had more time to work with them.”
Deepali is hands on with her trainees, always just a call away. Be it giving them mental support in times when they are not doing well or planning their training and competition schedule and choosing the right ammunition, she goes through every finer detail. She also travels with them to local tournaments.
“Personal coaches play a big role in a sport like shooting. It’s a big support system for them. Who’s going to help them when they lose their places in the national team? Anjum lost her place recently. You need to work with her. because she is one of your best shooters. I know there were problems in the national team because of the many coaches and you have to find a way to work smoothly with national and personal coaches.”
The failures of Tokyo made her wiser and she changed her approach when preparing for a major event like the Olympics.
“I only competed in one Olympics (Athens 2004). Tokyo was so different because of Covid and the uncertainty. Also, there were so many expectations from the shooters, the noise was too much -big. every little thing in your preparation.”
Deepali feels that there must be a Plan B or C for any kind of situation. “For example, the ammunition. You can’t sit on it when they arrive, you have to make sure you get them yourself if it doesn’t arrive in time. I have already started the process of doing it for my shooters. “
Ask about Tokyo and she says, “we had the right processes in place before Covid and things changed a lot. Shooting is a mind-based sport. Shooters are used with a level of stress management. Our training plans were off the reckoning after Covid. they were training at home, many of them were without a range close to their homes, ammunition was a concern.”
At the World Cup in Delhi in March 2021, the shooters had good results and seemed to have made a comeback.
“After the World Cup we assumed everything was back to normal and that’s when the second wave of Covid hit. For the next six weeks the shooters sat at home again with nothing to do. we need a camp or a plan. the situation was bad, yes, but we had to find a solution quickly.”
A solution was worked out. The National Rifle Association of India sent the entire contingent of 15 members to Croatia for a two and a half month training camp from where they left directly for Tokyo.
“It was a last minute arrangement but the only option available at the time. It was a new and ever changing situation for everyone and we did the best we could. Even when we landed in Tokyo, there were so many other things to take care of, like making sure the shooters didn’t get Covid.
“Whatever happened in Tokyo, it was a great experience for me and the whole team. It was such a great lesson and it will help to prepare for the Olympic Games in Paris.”
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