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Anjali targets history at Athens

June 18, 2004 22:59 IST
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Anjali Vedpathak-Bhagwat's early interests were judo and karate -- she ended up as India's top rifle shooter almost by chance.

Anjali BhagwatNow 34, Bhagwat is a top contender in the 10-metre air rifle in Athens, where she will try to cash in on her experience and determination by winning India's first Olympic shooting medal.

Her reputation has been enhanced by last year's victory in the elite World Cup Finals after a gold in a preceding World Cup.

Those successes came on top of her "Champion of Champions" crown won in 2002, when she beat the world's best shooters in an unofficial mixed event during the World championships.

An unexpected break led to Bhagwat taking up serious shooting, a minor sport in India dominated by men from rich families or from the armed forces.

Bhagwat had just been introduced to shooting by a member of her college's National Cadet Corps -- the student wing of the army -- when she was pitched into a major meeting after some first-rung shooters pulled out due to examinations.

"I wasn't aware of shooting till then," she said. "The early days were really tough. I struggled, but the desire was there and I knew I had the talent."

Bhagwat, who is one of eight Indians to qualify for the shooting in Athens in August, almost won a surprise medal at the Sydney Games four years ago.

She raised the profile of the sport in her country by becoming only the second Indian woman to reach an Olympic final as a last-minute wildcard, narrowly ending up seventh.

Undeterred, she went on to bag four gold medals at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games and to be honoured with India's highest sporting honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.


The Mumbai shooter's performances have spurred such interest at home that many schools have added indoor ranges alongside cricket nets in the city of Sachin Tendulkar.

Despite the Sydney disappointment and the heightened hopes this time, Bhagwat remains unfazed.

"Expectations don't add any extra pressure," the world number two told Reuters. "In the Olympics everyone has to perform, a medal is the target, and I'm expecting to win one.

"Sydney was my first experience and I got my wildcard only 15 days before the Games. I was an amateur there, but I'm ready this time."

Bhagwat's only concern is the windy conditions at the Olympic shooting range in a hilly locality of Athens. "They've not chosen an ideal venue. The wind could get worse in August."

But fellow shooters say Bhagwat's mental strength could make a big difference, her casual demeanour giving way to cold focus once she gears up to shoot.

"I do yoga. I've developed positive self-talk and visualise myself winning, letting positive force flow through me to build confidence," she explained.

The daughter of an insurance official and a classical singer, Bhagwat got the adventure bug early when she took up martial arts and trekking.

In the last four years, Bhagwat has been helped by the support of her engineer husband Mandar Bhagwat.


National coach Sunny Thomas believes Bhagwat and her compatriots could bag more than one medal in Athens.

"Anjali is very calm and quiet, never disturbed if one shot goes bad," he told Reuters.

He said Indian shooters had also collectively improved in the last few years which could make a big difference in Athens.

"Earlier, we were 0-0-0 in medals. These days so many of our shooters get at least to the final in World Cups, the world has begun to take notice."

The progress can be gauged from the size of the squad this time -- eight qualifiers -- compared to just one, plus two wildcards, for Sydney.

Suma Shirur, 30, Bhagwat's air rifle team mate, recently became only the fifth shooter ever to score a perfect 400.

Thomas said the big squad would help to evenly distribute pressure from the media.

But Bhagwat still knows nothing but her very best can help her to create history in Greece.

At the 2002 Asian Games, she and her team mates shot a world record in the air rifle team event but were still pushed to the silver medal by the apparently unstoppable Chinese.

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