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Resiliency - Reflections During The Commonwealth Games

on Friday, August 1, 2014

I was asked a series of questions by the Times Of India about my sporting days when the current Commonwealth Games swung around (I was a gold medalist and record holder in rifle shooting for India), including the inevitable "why did you leave?" question. Here is my original response the the questions:

“Don’t dwell on the past, or worry about the future - just take the shot at hand.”
“Maintain your equanimity - no need to celebrate the great shot, or fret about the bad one. Just learn from the last shot and keep going.”

The coaching instructions from my coach Mr. A.J. Jalaludin often had a layer of wisdom that spanned beyond the sport into life. Playing a sport in India, especially if it is not cricket or maybe tennis, used to require a certain amount of philosophical resignation, at least when I was in the thick of things in the 90s and early 2000s. There was much effort, the ones closest to you made significant sacrifices, the larger polity made judgmental cracks, and the broader system seemed to actually be working against your success. I am happy to see that things seem to have shifted to the positive for my own sport - rifle shooting. I am amazed and hopeful, and have long since taken a bit of a yogic view of my years of hard work at the shooting ranges.

My parents, Unnikrishnan and Jayasree, first introduced me to shooting when I was around 12. Having had the chance to try a shot while visiting a police range, I was hooked. Annie Oakley was certainly on my mind, as I pestered my father to take me to the shooting club in Chennai. The warm, welcoming MRC (Madras Rifle Club) had a lovely group of senior shooters. Using an open-sight rifle that all beginners started with, and under my father’s guidance, I seemed to magically get 10-shot cards that were tightly grouped around the center. My first true competition was at MRC, where I used Mr. A. R. Krishnamurthy, who lent me his old Anschutz after he saw my well-grouped cards, and I landed up getting a stack of state juniors awards, and womens trophies. We still laugh, because at one point in the match, people got up and ran, but I kept shooting. It turned out that that a snake had slithered past, but I was so focused on the shots, I didn’t see it or pay any attention to the general melee.
I continue to be thankful - that there were those who could be so supportive, and that we had any clue of whether there was any accuracy in my shooting. I say that, because the only bullets we had access to, and could afford were the Kirkee fire Indian shots which had a 50% chance of having too much or too little gun powder in them, I.e., shooting high or low on a target.

The next big step-change for my shooting was when the father of three shooters, Mr. A.J. Jalaludin, saw my shooting scores and decided that he would take time every Saturday and Sunday morning to include me in his small group of kids to coach. As a 12-year old girl who was attentive and quick to act on his insights, I trounced some of my talented friends - young boys who sometimes just needed to let off steam and run around while I was quietly doing Jalal-uncles bidding, including hours of shot visualization, and “dry-practice”, which entails walking through the whole
shot sequence from prep to shot to follow-through, without actually firing
a live bullet.

Thanks to my mother and maternal uncles all pitching in, I had my own rifle and all the shooting equipment once I had my first national medal in the bag. The whole thing put them back a tidy sum, and I will forever remain indebted to them. As I reflect on the network of family and friends who have supported without any call for recompense, it always surprises me when I meet an Indian who¹ll blatantly ask me how I could stop shooting. “You owe the country” they sayand I bite back a sharp retort. I owed my family and friends - and I delivered what I could - SAF games and national records which stood for decades, Commonwealth Games golds, records and silvers, World shooting standing - the fact that these are not even remembered by India is not a reflection on me, it’s a reflection on the Indian sports system and Indian fascination with a small number of sports. We treat our talent like gladiators - grist in a mill, not valuable contributors to our Nations story.

Along the way, there were those who did what they could to help me along. Then-police Commissioner Walter Davaram heard that I couldn’t get enough practice (MRC was only open on weekends) and so made a special case of getting me out to the Avadi police range to get an hour of shooting practice - an hour and half to the range, the hour of shooting and then all the way back. All this after school. Now that I think about this period, I can’t believe what it took to make it all come together. A friend who had the vision to reach out with help, a family who had the right priorities and made mountains move, and a gal who didn’t really need to see movies, hang out with pals or generally “time pass….” Supporters like Dr. Sivanthi Adityan and Haribhaskar who made sure that I wasn’t impacted by the politics that plagues our sports federations were part of that wind beneath my wings.

I still remember when I flew out right after my MBA exam, knowing on the flight from UK to Langkawi, that I’d be shooting at the Commonwealth Games the next day. On an early morning call, my father from India reminded me to shoot with joy, keep the negative thoughts aside and enjoy the sport. That’s the day I established the record and won the gold. This was a step up from the silver in Victoria, Canada at the previous Commonwealth. Of course, that was a medal that I hold dear because of the fact that it truly gave me the conviction that I could take on the world.

Shooting was indeed my pathway to the globe – I saw much of the world. Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Italy, Germany, UK, Japan, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The Flowers Trophy in the UK Nationals – three years in the row – was a validation as well. The extraordinary Oxford Blue – Shooting is a half-blue sport unless you had international medals and contributions to the Oxford team – is close to my heart. These are memories that keep me smiling.

The fact that all the educational institutions I had the good fortune to attend – Good Shepherd’s convent, WCC, Ethiraj, and Oxford – supported and made accommodations for my studies. They weren’t going to make it easy as far as standards went, but they gave the time to practice and were the places where friends provided the coverage to keep the work going. I hope Indian schools will have the vision to support their youngsters as my schools and colleges supported me.

As a mother of twins who are themselves developing their own personalities, likes and dislikes, I try to help them find their passions and pathways in the world. My son plays soccer, and I am thankful that there is a path to greatness blazed before him by thousands of young players. If he can make it, then there is the possibility of some form of payback. My daughter the artist loves her painting, and maybe there’s an avenue there. In my case, I shot because I loved the sport. Apart from jobs in the railways, CISF, or one of the armed forces, it was never clear that there was an Indian path to success based on the sport. To me, it was always clear that I’d need to be multi-talented. My shooting camp trip and my flights to international sporting events didn’t excuse me from school work. My books were my constant companions. I must have been 11 when my father first opened up the encyclopedia and we read the entry on Cecil Rhodes together - and we chatted about the Rhodes scholarship. I was trying to be a painter at that time, and he would drive me to my painting classes, and my dance classes….He was the first to get me to write poetry. When my shooting skill emerged, he of course gave up his golf so that we could use our weekend mornings at the shooting range, and we could afford the kirkee fire bullets! One can never really repay that kind of love and dedication.

What did the broader Indian system do? The visionary, if controversial TN chief minister Jayalalitha did reward my commonwealth games silver with a check for importing shooting equipment and a commitment to support my travel. It took a LOT of work to get the IAS officer who held the budget to actually make good on her word, but the CM’s heart was in the right place. On the other hand, as an FC who had “only” 96% in my exams, I was told by Anna University’s interview board that Shooting was not in their list of sportsthis was after I had already started winning medals for India. They sniggered at my certificates and medals. That year, they selected a district-level rower and a tennis player. Where are they now, I wonder?

The struggle was intense, and it was the passion for the sport that kept me going. I made it through the rigorous Rhodes Scholarship interviews, and went on Oxford. There I found a kindly town shooter at the Oxford Rifle Club, John Sims, who would ferry me out to remote shooting fields and we’d shoot in the freezing cold twice a week. There were practice sessions in the dark, indoor tennis courts of the University sports grounds - all make-shift efforts to keep up the sport. Biking out in the late evening, alone in the world, I never questioned why. I wanted to win, I wanted to make my family and Jalal-uncle proud, I wanted India to have a medal. Very much in the spirit of not “asking what the country can do for me, but what I can do for my country.”

And then came the day I won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1998. I came back to India two days after the medal ceremony, and some small part of my heart hoped that at last there would be some kind of recognition. I got off the plane, and there they were - the same people who had been there through thick and thin - my family, Jalal-uncle, a few friends and one person from the Madras Rifle Club at the airport.

I suspect that was the last straw for me. In many ways, I had worked hard to keep playing the sport for my country while also keeping my education going. The scales tipped that day in Madras airport. My letters to Tatas was rewarded with a ltter from Ratan Tata and a check for Rs. 5000, and one to Indian Bank asking for support for my shooting netted Rs. 50,000. That was it. The media continued to spit forth the annual story of some Arjuna award winner who had to pawn his or her award to make ends meet. At this juncture, when I received an offer to work in New York, I knew it would be hard to keep shooting, but I had to make the choice to invest in myself. I had to think small for once, not big.

I kept shooting while in the US, and would go in for US shooting competitions. In 2003 I tried to send in my scores for an Indian trial and was told that only scores recorded in India would be considered. That was the end of my shooting efforts for India. The Arjuna award in 1999 had been a great high, and my only sadness was that there was no recognition for my coach Jalal-uncle, who was not given any credit for his hard work. I wish there was a way to give him the real Dronacharya award.

Do I regret anything? I’m happy to say that like the French singer Edith Piaf croons, “Je ne regrette rien.” Given the lack of financial support from government or companies, given the hard work of my family and friends, given the sacrifices I made, I think the awards I got at a time when India was not winning anything in the international arena is a personal triumph. I wish India could appreciate it, but as Jalal uncle says, “don’t worry about the last shot. Just look forward."

I believe that Indian shooting has come a long way. However, it continues to be a slightly hap-hazard system. If you can get the attention of a kind supporter, or have a family who can support you, then you are in luck. If I had my druthers, I’d love to help establish a corporate-supported fund that could support state-level training programs. Let’s use the tools of today – I’m happy to run a MOOC that focuses on the critical element of shooting – the Mental Game. The mind is where every shooting match is won. The body just gets you there. I’d love to see a space where we have thousands of strong shooters who have the mental discipline that comes from that kind of training, physical stamina that will come from physical exercise that could be managed on a plan based at home, a subsidy from a central fund to make sure they have the right diet, and finally, equipment that can be leased at a reasonable rate from state associations. Add to that a network of thoughtful, caring coaches who have been trained by someone like Jalal-uncle, and then you’ll have the machine that could get us going. Let’s also establish a trans-continental set of shooting matches, where local teams across the globe can compete virtually. Just shoot 30 shots on the same day and let’s scan in the cards. That kind of exposure can build real confidence. The cherry on top of the sundae? If the confederacy of corporations would be open to creating internships – maybe a 100 across 20 companies – that could help these young athletes build out their potential further – and then we’ll be making a dent. I’ve had my hand up for a while, folks. Happy to help!!


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