It’s easy to understand why Indian shooters in the women’s 25m pistol event were a bundle of nerves a day before the start of the third Olympic trials at the MP Shooting Academy in Bhopal last month.

With a spot in the national Olympic team on the line, there was much at stake. Therefore, while some were meditating in preparation for the event, others were revising their dry firing techniques.

But Manu Bhaker wasn’t doing any of that. In her hotel room in Bhopal, she pulled out a violin (a birthday gift from her brother), scrunched her face in concentration, and started playing the Indian national anthem, practising to get the notes just right.

As far as musical instruments go, the violin — which, unlike the guitar, has no guides on its bridge for finger placement — is considered one of the hardest to learn.

But, Manu took her first music class just four months before the Olympics. She makes a valiant attempt to play her first song. It’s fair to say she loves it, although not everyone is as enthused.

“Baaki sab match ki taiyari kar rahe hain aur Manu violin baja rahi thi (Everyone else is preparing for the match, and Manu is playing the violin),” her coach Jaspal Rana later said in mock exasperation.

Call it bravado or supreme self-confidence, but the fact is Manu is at the top of her game. She gets her rendition of the song she is practising as well as her shooting, nearly perfect. At the Olympic selection trials, she came out on top in both the 10m pistol and 25m pistol events, averaging 579.53 in the former and 586.47 in the latter.

She also improved on the finals world record twice in the 25m pistol event.

Still only 22, Manu will be India’s youngest two-time Olympian. She will likely take part in three separate events in Paris, more than any other Indian competitor. While she took part in three events in Tokyo as well, this version of Manu Bhaker is older, wiser, and likely better prepared. But it’s the kind of progress that hasn’t happened seamlessly.

A little less than a year ago, Manu was done with the sport. It wasn’t as if she was shooting badly. She was still a part of the Indian team and posted strong scores. But that was no longer enough. “It had become a chore. I thought to myself I’d somehow get to the 2024 Olympics. If I qualified, great. If I didn’t, that was also fine. Whatever happened, I was done with shooting. I wasn’t going to step into the shooting range ever again,” she says.

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The fun had gone out of the sport. “For someone on the outside, it looked as if I was doing fine. I was still part of the Indian team and shooting decent scores. But I was not happy inside. I didn’t like shooting. There was this constant feeling  ki nahi ho raha hai (that it’s not happening). Shooting was becoming more like a job for me. Every single day it felt as if I was doing the same thing. I just didn’t like the monotony,” she says.

Manu had felt this way many years before. Before she took up shooting at 16, she had been a boxer. “Boxing was the first sport I really loved, but I left it because the schedule had just become really monotonous. I was just doing the same thing every day. I left that sport despite really loving it. It had become more of a job for me. It was the same for shooting. It just didn’t excite me. On the other hand, it just made me really nervous. It just drove me crazy, and then I was like, ‘I can’t shoot like that anymore’,” she says.

Quitting the sport was an idea she’d been flirting with for a few months already, but last June was when she actually started making plans for what life would look like once she put down her pistols for the last time.

“I started thinking about giving the Civil Services exams. I was good in studies, of course, but I was also fascinated by how there were all these students who would give up years of their life to chase a single goal. I didn’t know if I could give another Olympic cycle’s worth of effort to it, but if only for one year, I wouldn’t mind feeling that same emotion as they seemed to be,” she says.

Before she decided to call it a day, though, Manu felt there was one last chance to be taken. She took out her phone and made a call to a person who, in the public imagination, might have been considered the trigger for one of the lowest periods in her career.

On the other end of the line was Jaspal Rana.

“Yes, Manu, what can I do for you?”

‘I would like you to coach me once again.’

It would be an understatement to say that Rana was taken aback by the call. He says he couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw who the call was from. Two years had passed since a very public falling out between the two.

The right guide: It wasn’t just his physical presence but also a wealth of technical knowledge that Rana (right) brought to the table for Manu.

The right guide: It wasn’t just his physical presence but also a wealth of technical knowledge that Rana (right) brought to the table for Manu.
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu


The right guide: It wasn’t just his physical presence but also a wealth of technical knowledge that Rana (right) brought to the table for Manu.
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu

Most of Manu’s life has been lived in the public eye ever since she broke into the sports media news circle for the first time in 2018, when she became the youngest Indian to win gold at the ISSF shooting World Cup at just 16 years old.

Over the years, Manu’s life seemed to be synonymous with shooting. “I think a lot of athletes would relate to this. Every aspect of my life was associated with shooting somewhere. I still remember my age based on the tournaments I competed in and won. When I was 16, I won the Commonwealth Games. When I was 17, I won the Olympic quota. When I was 19, I made my debut at the Olympics,” she says.

But if her impressive highs marked her out as one of the most prodigious Indian shooting talents, her lows — equally spectacular in their own way — had also been on full display.

Just months before the Tokyo Olympics, Rana, a former two-time Olympian and one of the country’s top pistol shooters in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium, had helmed a highly successful Indian junior program. He had been Manu’s coach ever since she made her international debut in 2018.

Manu had been training with him when she qualified in both the 10m pistol and 25m pistol events for the Olympics. The Federation wanted to send her in both events. But Rana wanted another talented protege of his — Chinki Yadav — to compete in the 25m pistol so that Manu could focus on the 10m pistol event and the 10m pistol mixed team event with Saurabh Chaudhary.

Rana still stands by his decision. “Manu wasn’t ready to compete in three different events at such a young age. It’s hugely taxing on the body. You can compete in all three, but there’s always a compromise to be made. If you train for the 25m pistol events, it always has a negative impact on your 10m pistol chances.

“We had the chance for an assured gold medal in the 10m mixed team event. Unfortunately, Manu was told that I wanted Chinki in the squad but not the reason for it. That led to a lot of unpleasantness. Manu is a very volatile personality. When she gets an idea stuck in her head, she can be very intense. And it’s the same for me,” he says.

The rift boiled over at the New Delhi World Cup just a few months before the Olympics, when Chinki beat Manu to a gold in the 25m pistol event. A message would go out to Rana’s phone from Manu’s, stating “Shanti mil gayi? (Are you at peace?).” Unwilling to back down himself, he got the message written on his t-shirt and wore it at the range, where it became the talking point of the fraternity.

Even though Manu was given the chance to compete in three separate events in Tokyo, it was soon very apparent that she seemed out of her depth. She didn’t make the Olympic final in either the 10m air pistol or the 25m pistol events. Paired with Saurabh Chaudhary, she struggled in the mixed team event before going out in the semifinals. Her Olympic campaign was symbolised by an equipment failure in the 10m pistol event and a picture of Indian coach Ronak Pandit putting his arm around her shoulder to console her after yet another missed qualification round.

When she looks back at her Olympic campaign, Manu admits being completely overwhelmed by the experience of competing in Tokyo. “I was just not brave enough. I was just really afraid of everything. I just couldn’t focus on myself. I was aware that the Olympics were special, but I had this sense of nervousness that was unlike any other tournament I had competed in previously. I never felt it at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, or Youth Olympic Games.

“At the Olympic Games, you see so many established athletes who are already doing so well. Many of them might have just won a medal. And you see them just hanging around in the Games village and the dining hall, and I just felt I didn’t belong among them. I was a kid among all these athletes who were way, way better than me.

“They might not even have been in the same sport as me. There were basketball players, track and field athletes, and swimmers. I was comparing myself to them. That was very stupid on my part, but it’s what I felt at that time,” she says.

A maiden Olympics, which should have been a career highlight, now elicits distaste. “Honestly, I have very bitter memories from the Tokyo Olympics. I wondered why this happened to me. What did I do wrong?” she says.

It took her a long time to come to terms with how everything had played out. “I think we all have to make our peace with some situations, especially when it’s no longer in our hands. We can’t change the past. What happened was unpleasant, but I had to find a way to move on with my life,” she says.

On the right track: Manu shot her highest score since the 2018 Asian Games at the 2023 Asian Championships in Changwon, scoring 591 in the qualification round of the 25m pistol event and securing a quota for the Paris Olympics. 

On the right track: Manu shot her highest score since the 2018 Asian Games at the 2023 Asian Championships in Changwon, scoring 591 in the qualification round of the 25m pistol event and securing a quota for the Paris Olympics. 
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu


On the right track: Manu shot her highest score since the 2018 Asian Games at the 2023 Asian Championships in Changwon, scoring 591 in the qualification round of the 25m pistol event and securing a quota for the Paris Olympics. 
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu

Despite what happened both in the run-up and during the Olympics, Manu doesn’t see herself as a victim. “It’s a tough memory, but it’s not traumatic or anything. It’s like a difficult set of thoughts that will always be in my head. I cannot flush them out. But when I look back now and see how I was in 2021, I don’t think I was mentally ready to compete in an event like the Olympics,” she says.

It’s the sort of critical self-assessment that’s rare in athletes many times her age, let alone someone just out of their teens. “I think it’s just that I’ve grown since what happened in Tokyo. I now look at that experience as a lesson. Starting in 2023, I started to connect the dots of what went wrong and what I could have done so that the results would have been better. And I think I am just not willing to make those mistakes again ever,” she says.

To correct what she felt was one of the big mistakes of the Tokyo Olympics build-up, she called up Rana.

“I think the turning point for me in this Olympic cycle has been when I started working with Jaspal sir once again. I called him up on the 14th of June last year, but I had been thinking about it for at least six months prior. Every time I thought about reaching out, I banished those thoughts because I felt I might just be trying to find excuses to justify my reality — which was that I didn’t enjoy shooting.

“I knew what was missing in my shooting was having Jaspal sir coaching me, but I didn’t have the courage to reach out to him. After everything that had happened in the past, I didn’t know whether it would work out or not. Finally, though, I had enough. I was so sick of shooting, and I felt I just needed to call him. I had no idea whether it would work or whether it would be a terrible decision. But I needed to give it a shot,” she says.

Rana says he felt compelled to accept her request.

“I can’t think how much courage she must have had to call me and ask for my help. If I was in her place, I wouldn’t have called me. What happened between us was not my fault, but it wasn’t her fault either. It’s hard to be the first person to reach out even when you are at fault. In Manu’s case, she wasn’t to blame.

“She was misinformed about my intentions. If she could find it in her to overcome whatever ego she might have felt, how could I have refused to work with her?“ he says.

The early days of their re-partnership weren’t easy. “After what happened before the Olympics, I just stopped coming to the Karni Singh range (in Delhi). It was just really uncomfortable. I had my own businesses to run in Dehradun, and I had restarted my political career in Uttarakhand. But I knew I had to go back to Delhi to work with Manu,” he says.

If Rana was willing to put his life on hold to work with his former protégé, Manu herself was grateful for his return.

“I knew I had to work with Jaspal sir. He has this really refreshing positive energy that I can always feel. He just gives me a lot of courage when I’m on the lane. There was a phase, in the final trials of the 10m air pistol qualification event, where I didn’t feel in sync. Something felt off. And when I’d turn around and look at him, he’d just put his fist to his chest. He was just telling me to have faith and courage.

“I’d think that even if things aren’t going well, I should at least try to do what I can. He’s not someone who has a lot of doubt. There are coaches who will tell me what the consequences of different options will be. Jaspal sir just tells me to do something. And I just have that faith in him,” she says.

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It wasn’t just his physical presence but also a wealth of technical knowledge that Rana brought to the table. At the selection trials in Bhopal, Rana meticulously notes down every one of Manu’s shots on a custom-made app. He also keeps a writing pad where he draws out maps of her shooting pattern, which looks like a cross between a doctor’s prescription and a wizard’s incantation.

He’s as demanding as he ever was. “There are times during trials where I’ve almost given up and started to release shots without going through my process of aiming, just to get the series over with. But Jaspal sir always catches on. And he’ll be furious. He doesn’t mind a bad series, but he hates nothing more than a shooter giving less than 100 percent,” she says.

While her coach might be stern, weapon troubles are now a thing of the past.

“I was having malfunctions with my pistol not just at the Olympics but even after it. I even had trouble with my pistol in the first and second shooting trials in Bhopal last year. I was always wondering what was going wrong. My pistol was fine, my ammunition was brand new as were my magazines. I was completely clueless on what was going on. Ever since I’ve started working with Jaspal sir once again, I’ve stopped having any issues. He usually just cleans my pistol once every six months.

“He’s a lot more knowledgeable than a lot of coaches. He checks everything in the pistol — all the parts and spares. He makes sure that nothing can go wrong. He makes sure that I have three or four spare pistol grips, not just two. I’ve not had any issues with my equipment ever since,” she says.

Rana and Manu changed up her training pattern as well. “I think the main reason I really considered giving up shooting was that for a long time I was working like a gadha (donkey). Jaspal sir tells me I was working like a khacchar (mule) instead of actually working like a ghoda (horse). I was doing just brainless hard work. And I needed to know the difference,” she says.

It isn’t as if the sessions are any less intense though.

“Very often I have that feeling where I know I have nothing else to give. It’s not physical exhaustion as much as mental. After my training sessions, I might not even know where I am. I’ll have a phone in my hand, and I’ll be looking for it.

“There was this other time when I just left my pistol at my shooting station and left the range. Luckily the guard at the range had collected it and kept it safe. That was a huge goof up, but it was also a pleasant reminder that I’d given that session everything I had,” she says.

It’s important when she trains this way to find different ways to let her mind switch off. Among the things Manu says she learned from her build-up to Tokyo was her almost solitary focus on shooting, which often came at the expense of her mental health.

“Jaspal sir encourages me to try different things. His only requirement is that I don’t do it at the expense of my shooting or practise it throughout the day. So, he encourages me to try different sports or activities, which is a good thing. As long as it doesn’t involve my hand, my arm, and something that can lead to injuries, he is fine with it,” she says.

Beyond the range: The violin is a recent addition to Manu’s range of interests. She’s also been taking classes in kathak and horse riding.

Beyond the range: The violin is a recent addition to Manu’s range of interests. She’s also been taking classes in kathak and horse riding.
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu


Beyond the range: The violin is a recent addition to Manu’s range of interests. She’s also been taking classes in kathak and horse riding.
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar/The Hindu

And that’s what she’s doing. The violin is a recent addition to her range of interests. She’s also been taking classes in kathak, as well as lessons in horse riding. She’s also become a regular gym-goer.

“I think shooting is shooting, but you have to be mentally sound as well. It’s not always going to help you to be (just) physically and technically sound; you have to be mentally balanced too. So, if you are balanced in all three or four ways, if you have a sound mind and sound body, you will be able to perform a lot better,” she says.

That’s certainly showing in her scores. At the 2023 Asian Championships in Changwon, where she won a quota in the 25m pistol event, Manu shot a 591 in qualification — her highest score since the 2018 Asian Games.

RELATED: Straight Shooting with Manu Bhaker: Olympian on her love for violin, anger management, social life and more

Her consistency over 16 matches in the 10m and 25m pistol events in the space of a month at the Olympic selection trials further added substance to Rana’s belief that while she might not have been ready to compete in three events at the Tokyo Games, she certainly is capable of dealing with the same workload in Paris.

But while her shooting is once more speaking for itself, Manu says she’s also learning to not make it her central identity. “I got into shooting when I was 16 years old. Because I was so successful in it at such a young age, I never really got the chance to do anything else. I never really had a childhood away from shooting.

“All my interactions and friendships were with other shooters. I had no social life. If I could, I’d go back and tell my 16-year-old self to go out and explore a little. I went to my first World Cup in Rio when I was 16 and after winning gold, I just went back to my hotel room and slept!

“I went to so many countries and did not even go out of my room and the shooting range. I should have tried to go out a bit more. I should have tried to enjoy different countries, cultures, and atmospheres,” she says.

She does that more consciously now.

“My last international competition was at the ISSF World Cup in Granada. The day after my competition ended was my birthday. I didn’t really have any friends with me, so I just decided to roam around the city by myself. I went to the castle and saw the flamenco dancers. I watched a movie in Spanish without any subtitles. I didn’t understand anything, but it was fun,” she says.

While Manu is more balanced, matured, and has regained her passion for the sport, some of the anger Rana remembers has not completely disappeared.

Manu says, “Sometimes I’ll just punch things, throw things, break things. But things like that will happen much more rarely now. But it’s spectacular when it does happen. Just about a month ago, I was really disappointed after a training session that just didn’t go well. It was just not a good day.

“So many things piled up one on top of the other that I just couldn’t take it. And I punched a wall at the range. Luckily, I didn’t break a knuckle, but it still turned bright red. I didn’t tell Jaspal sir for many days, and then finally when he saw that red mark on my knuckle, he asked me what was going on. I pretended I had this pain in my wrist or my hand. Now he’ll tease me about it. If I ever start to get angry, he’ll ask me if I plan on punching a wall.”

As she heads to the Paris Olympics, Manu knows just how easy it would have been for her to not be a part of the Indian team. Tokyo claimed several of India’s most talented shooters. Apurvi Chandela, who set a world record in the build-up to Tokyo, has disappeared from the scheme of things; as has Asian Games medallist Abhishek Verma.

Perhaps the biggest loss has been that of Saurabh Choudhary, who broke the world record in the qualification round of the Olympics but then crashed out early in the finals. While Manu had worn her misery on her sleeve, Saurabh had seemed the more composed shooter and the one who was more likely to return to the Olympics in three years’ time.

Instead, he could barely find a place in the national team. A bitter dispute with his long-term coach Amit Sheoran has still not been resolved. He failed to qualify for the World Championships, Asian Games, and even the Olympic qualifiers in Bhopal. A brief return to the World Cup at Rio last year saw him fail to make even the finals.

As someone who herself came close to the brink, Manu empathises with her former teammate.

“Saurabh, according to me, was the finest shooter I have ever seen in my life. It was a shocker that he hasn’t even been able to make it to the Olympic trials. I think that he should have been given another chance. Maybe he might still come back. But if you don’t give him a chance, he will be lost,” she says.

For now, though, she will have to focus on herself. All her learning, improvement, and maturity will pay off in two months at Châteauroux. Manu knows this as well.

“The goal is not to become the youngest two-time Olympian. The goal is something bigger — the Olympic gold. That’s what every shooter is going for. I just look at it as an opportunity. I’m going to the Games, I’m representing my country, and I have to be ready and do my best. I think things will be different this time. I don’t think I’ll be intimidated as much,” she says.

As the clock ticks down to the start of the Olympic Games, Manu is looking to wrap up another accomplishment — a pitch-perfect rendition of Jana Gana Mana.

The hope for the rest of the nation, though, is that in the shooting range at Châteauroux, it will be the stadium speakers instead that will play the Indian national anthem.