Jitu Rai shook his head in frustration when he glanced at the tiny monitor in front of him. His 54th shot, out of the prescribed 60, was a 9. This was his 20th 9-pointer and the one that severely jeopardized his chances of advancing to the 10m air pistol final. Now, his fate depends on how others performed more than ever. Almost on cue, the DJ inside the hall played the soundtrack from the Hollywood action-thriller Mission Impossible. The movie’s title summed up Rai’s predicament. To sneak into the top-eight and qualify for the medal round seemed beyond Rai. At least that is what those who were at the Karni Singh Shooting range would have thought.
But Rai rose to the occasion, in dramatic fashion, and eventually went on to win a bronze. Staring down the barrel, quite literally, he shot five consecutive 10-pointers. Rai, it seemed, was shooting in rage. Angry with himself, his poor shots and the prospect of missing the final at his home range. The cut for the final, till a few moments ago, looked like being set at 578. In a world-class field, that was an average score. At the Rio Olympics, for instance, qualifying closed at 580, which is what Rai had shot. However, at the Delhi World Cup, it would fall even more. Rai’s stirring comeback coincided with an equally astonishing meltdown of Kazakhstan’s Vladimir Issachenko and Brazil’s Julio Almeida. Both were comfortably in the top-8 but a string of 9s in their closing shots reduced the qualifying cut and helped Rai (577) to leapfrog them and advance to the finals.
“I didn’t expect to qualify for the final. My score was too low to qualify for the final, I thought. But I guess everyone was having a bad day,” Rai said. In theory, the final is a fresh beginning for a shooter. The scores are reset. But for Rai, the final was a continuation of the qualifying. When he didn’t produce good scores, fortune favoured him as his competitors fared worse. Over the years, Rai has forged a reputation of not cracking under pressure. But even he has started to admit that like everyone else he too has nerves, which are affected by the pressure of competition.
For the last three years, he has been India’s leading medal hope. Such has been his consistency since 2013 that he was expected to win a medal at Rio. When he returned empty-handed it was seen as a major failure. Admittedly, those were Rai’s toughest two weeks. He was battling injury and was enduring a troubled relationship with pistol coach Pavel Smirnov. As the Abhinav Bindra-led panel observed in its Rio report to the National Rifle Association of India, Rai admitted to not having a working relationship with Smirnov.
The duo, on Tuesday, tried their best to paint a normal picture. Smirnov animatedly spoke to him immediately after the qualification was secured. “If you are angry, then you lose. So I told him, don’t fight with everybody. Fight with yourself. There was tension, a lot of tension. He began to worry, so I had to calm him down for the final,” Smirnov said. Whatever Smirnov said did not seem to have an impact. Rai began the final with a 9.1 and followed it up with an embarrassing 8.8. He had five scores of under-10 in the first two series, just like the Rio Olympics. Back then, the high-quality of shooting by the rest meant he exited at eighth place.
Here, though, it was the opposite. Even though Rai was not at his best, the rest of the field too experienced the jitters that comes with a final. Every time Rai was in trouble by shooting a low score, other shooters would assist him in staying alive by shooting even worse. First, it was China’s Qifeng Pu.
In the first elimination, Rai shot a 9.9. Anything above 9.4 for Pu would have knocked Rai out. But the Chinese shot a 9.1. Rai survived, just about. The trend continued as Rai moved up after each elimination round to the disbelief of everyone, including the shooter himself. “I didn’t look at the scores but was surprised that I was surviving,” Rai said.
By now, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ set the mood inside the finals hall. The crowd found its voice and even the neutrals, the shooters who weren’t competing in the final, were backing Rai.
Amidst that, the army man continued his assault on the scoreboard, gladly accepting the help he was receiving from the others. Rai upped his game in the final shots, scoring 10s at will, which put him in contention for a medal. However, it looked a distant possibility as the gap between him and third-placed Vinh Xuan Hoang, Rio Olympics gold medallist, looked too big. The Vietnamese did enough to stay alive but astonishingly, China’s Zhanyi Xu – who was 2.1 points ahead of Rai going into the two elimination, fumbled.
Xu’s (179.1) last two shots were a 8.9 and 9.9 while Rai (177) hit two 10.6s to go 0.3 points ahead of the Chinese and assure himself of a medal. The fight for the silver was now on and the gap between Rai and Hoang was just 0.3 points. It wasn’t beyond Rai, considering he had overcome bigger hurdles in the final. Rai’s (198.2) 21st shot in the final was a 9.9, which took his total to 208.1. Hoang (198.5) shot a 9.5, thus slipping to third with a total of 208.0.
A silver was there for the taking. But in the elimination shot, Rai ran out of luck. He shot an 8.6. Hoang hit 9.3. Rai then looked at the monitor next to him and shook his head. This time, it was in disbelief. “I’ve been in such situations before,” he said.