Sanjeev Rajput: On the road to redemption

Sanjeev Rajput of India celebrates winning the Men's 50m Rifle 3P final during the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)
Sanjeev Rajput of India celebrates winning the Men's 50m Rifle 3P final during the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The Indian rifle shooter speaks to Tokyo 2020 about his life, missing out on Rio 2016 and his future targets.

With the Olympic quota already secured, a 35-year-old Sanjeev Rajput was all set to take his place in the Indian contingent for Rio 2016.

There is a window of opportunity in Brazil to achieve his lifelong dream of winning an Olympic medal, but the Olympic berth that looked an almost certainty was controversially handed to a shotgun shooter instead, leaving Rajput both devastated and heartbroken.

"I was so heartbroken, dejected and didn’t know what to do," he explained.

"My dreams all came down crashing in that moment because even until the last day before the Olympic contingent left India, I was hoping against hope that I will get a call and take part in the Games.

"But it was not to be."

Qualifying for Tokyo via Rio

Rajput of Haryana secured his Olympic quota for the Tokyo Olympics at the same range where he failed to fulfill his 2016 Olympics dream. His 50m 3-position rifle silver at the 2019 ISSF World Cup at Rio’s Olympic range was a bittersweet victory.

"This wasn’t a coincidence; it was all part of a plan and I had worked every detail out," he said.

"I fulfilled two objectives by sealing qualification in Rio at the ISSF World Cup: the first one being the aim to prove the ‘he can’t win a medal’ club wrong. All those who said I will not win a medal got a befitting reply from the same backyard where they stopped me from going.

"Secondly, the weather, timing and climate in Rio is like the Tokyo Olympics, meaning it would help me prepare in a much better way," he explained.

Running the shooting marathon

Tokyo 2020 will be Rajput’s third Olympic Games, but nearing the age of 40, he is fully aware of how things can change for shooters - both physically and mentally - within the space of a few months.

For someone who has been in the shooting circuit longer than Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang and Manavjit Sandhu, Rajput - due to his demeanour is not as often spoken about as frequently his fellow shooters - but these things don't really matter to him.

What's most important to Rajput, before settling down to start a family, is to win an Olympic medal.

"I sometimes feel I will get married only after winning an Olympic medal."

"However, I do not know how the other person will turn out to be, and whether she will support me. I cannot take a chance. Therefore, I think it is best that I win a medal first and then maybe, I can think of getting married."

The longest time away from shooting

Shooting, as a sport, comes into the limelight once every four years, but for a shooter, it’s a daily grind and even a week away from the gun can be detrimental. COVID-19 has transformed the fabric of sport in the past seven months and lockdown has resulted in Rajput not picking up a rifle for four and a half months.

"I felt as if I am back in kindergarten and had to learn everything from scratch because taking a break that long changes everything, right from your body positioning to your muscle memory," he explained.

"I was unsure about the quality of the shot I was taking and whether it would hit the intended target. In fact, it took me a good six to seven days for regaining my muscle memory."

The margin between securing a medal or not in a shooting competition can be down to the slightest fraction, and no amount of imagination or knowledge can make a non-shooter understand the gravity of this fact. More than half the battle is won in the head, according to Rajput, who goes into a "special training mode" before a major tournament such as the Olympics, World Cup or Commonwealth Games.

But what goes on in the head of a shooter while taking a shot?

"You can’t think too much or be distracted, because if you do, it could prove to be your undoing," Rajput said. "The moment you start thinking about the score or looking too far ahead, you might slip up. This is what makes shooting so difficult and especially at the Olympics."

Mission gold at Tokyo 2020

India’s quest for an individual Olympic gold was ended by shooter Abhinav Bindra at the Beijing Games in 2008, but three editions have since passed, and a second gold yet to materialise.

At the age of 39, many wouldn't give Rajput a chance of being victorious in Tokyo, but the shooter himself has only one target.

"I have a clear target of winning gold at Tokyo 2020 Olympics and I am working for it. I know it will be tough, but I can do it. At the moment, the European shooters have started playing in competitions and [begun] full training. Due to this, there is an obvious gap in the level of game at the moment and the preparations, given the fact that Indian shooters are yet to start doing full practice," he said.

"This also means I will have to do double the work as compared to them, but I am determined to do so."

In 2016, a dejected Rajput almost quit the game after being deprived of the chance to do what any athlete aims to achieve in their career – win an Olympic medal.

But someone, Rajput explains, told him "you have what it takes, and what you have, no one else has".

Those words allowed Rajput to reverse his decision, and four years later, he is ready to have one last shot at glory.