“I was furious with myself when I returned to the Olympic Village. Just then, Anjum (Moudgil) didi said the long hair doesn’t look nice on me. Dimaag toh waise hi kharab tha (My head was not right anyway). So, I went straight to the salon and got it chopped off.”
Divyansh Panwar is talking in a soft, measured manner about the all-consuming rage he’d experienced on a scorching hot day in Tokyo last July. For years, the former world number one shooter, a World Cup medallist, had spent every waking minute of his life getting better so that he is better than everyone else on the day that matters – the final of the Olympics. But instead, he returned home ‘humiliated and embarrassed’, finishing 32nd out of 47 shooters in the 10m air rifle event.
That one moment, his first brush with ‘failure’, had such a profound impact on the happy-go-lucky, jovial teenaged shooter – the official prankster of the Indian team – that he now talks like some sort of a spiritual guru, a philosopher. The boy who couldn’t stop playing PUBG is now immersed in romantic novels. And the stylish paraphernalia around his wrists and neck have made way for strings of holy threads and a rudraksha mala, which he wears as a bracelet.
“It’s nice,” Panwar, soon to turn 20, says of his new avatar. “It has helped me calm down.”
The stunning debacle of India’s shooting contingent at the Olympics last year has had an extreme impact on the players, and the scars are visible even now at the firing points in the National Games. Panwar’s air rifle teammate Deepak Kumar doesn’t want to recall the bakwas (nonsense) days in Tokyo, such is the hurt and anger within even today. Elavenil Valarivan, who, like Panwar, is always smiling no matter the situation, seems a lot more guarded now. Saurabh Chaudhary, the pistol shooting sensation, has fallen so far behind nationally that he isn’t even in the team anymore – the World Cup medallist, in fact, dabbles in 50m pistol, a non-Olympic event, now and then as he charts his way back in his pet 10m events.
The shooters, since the Olympics, have gone off the radar with few noteworthy performances and constant churning within the team. And Panwar’s story since, in a way, captures the emotional low the shooters have experienced after months of professional high leading up to the Olympics when Indians dominated the World Cups, topped ranking charts and were firm favourites to land a few medals at least.
Instead, the 15-member team – the highest number of shooters India has sent to the Games – choked so badly that, except Chaudhary, no one even reached the final.
It led to a selection policy change from the federation, which has resulted in new faces replacing old ones for the World Championships in October, where Paris Olympics quotas will be up for grabs. But then, Panwar & Co. can barely be described as ‘old’ faces.
Panwar was just 18 – had a long, flowing mane, carefree attitude and very rustic sense of humour which made him everyone’s favourite – when he entered the Games on the back of a hot streak where every pellet that was fired from his rifle would almost unfailingly hit as close to the bulls-eye as possible. In Tokyo, his shots were sprayed all over as he crashed out.
He returned to the Games Village fuming and in that fit of rage, his long locks became his first victim. “I wanted to change something,” he says, sheepishly. Then, he called his coach Deepak Dubey and demanded no one received him at the airport when he landed in New Delhi. “He was so embarrassed that he didn’t want to face anyone,” Dubey says.
So, while the medallists returned amidst massive fanfare, Panwar silently slipped into the country, hailed a taxi and reached his home on the outskirts of Delhi. “A couple of days later, he wanted to return to the range and shoot just to prove that he wasn’t the bad shooter that Tokyo made him out to be. More than anyone else, I think he wanted to prove that to himself,” Dubey adds.
Instead, Panwar was sent to Uttarakhand for a Vipassana camp. “He had to calm down first. So, he spent a couple of weeks at Vipassana and that was the first step to introspection.”
All work and no play
The first of many. Panwar says some of the team members met and conducted a post mortem of sorts. “It didn’t happen as much as it should have but we spoke about the performances,” he says. “The problem was, people changed. What I mean is everyone went too much into their zones and life became just about shooting, shooting, shooting. Social life came to a halt and each one went his or her own way. That did not work well at all for us.”
It took around three months after the Olympics for Panwar to return to the range. It was a massive struggle, he says, and he had to ‘push’ himself. But once back, Panwar started from scratch. “Something as simple and basic as holding time,” he says, talking about a drill where shooters just hold their rifles steady and aim without taking a shot to improve gun control and stability.
“For the first two months, I did just that. The moment we start shooting, our focus moves to scores and that begins to dictate everything we do. And in that mindset, we start ignoring basics. Hence, holding is necessary. We have to curb our urge to shoot but holding helps us in understanding which muscles we need to keep tight, and which ones to loosen. All this helps in improving our scores by three-four points.”
Like Chaudhary, Panwar too is out of the main senior rifle team at the moment because of his recent performances in the selection trials. He’ll compete at the World Championships in the junior category, which must feel like a step down after going to the Olympics. The fact that there’s a chance for seniors to win Olympic quota places in Cairo could rankle him further. But even if it is bothering him, Panwar doesn’t show it. “It’ll come eventually, I’m not concerned about that,” he says.
For a man who wanted to run before he could walk, it’s quite a change. One of many, for Panwar.