Calling The Shots: Heena Sidhu And Gul Panag Are Put Through Their Paces
It’s a sweltering Friday afternoon when I make my way to the Maharashtra Rifle Association in Worli, the ambient din reducing by several decibels as soon as the gates of the premises are secured behind me. I am directed towards an air-conditioned indoor range where 10-metre air pistols are used for target practice, my gaze resting immediately on two women in their workout gear engaged in animated conversation. I can instantly tell them apart from their body type — one is petite and lithe while the other is tall and sinewy. Shooter and Arjuna Award winner Heena Sidhu and actor, model and entrepreneur Gul Panag have their backs turned towards me but favour me with twin beatific smiles when they hear me approaching. I’m convinced that they are both completely at home around all the fitness paraphernalia we have set up for the shoot.
Sidhu and Panag resume their tête-à-tête while they warm up for our first session on the yoga mats. The former Miss India reminisces about how she first jumped on the fitness bandwagon which eventually turned into a lifelong journey. “I was 15 when my dad suggested that I start exercising. I was quite flummoxed because at the time, I believed that fitness was merely a way to combat obesity and I have the build of an ectomorph. Besides, everyone my age was hanging out with friends and watching movies and I didn’t want to miss out on that part of life. After months of cajoling, my father said I would have to go running with him from the next day. We started with a two-mile run — I hated every second of it but I couldn’t possibly whine when my own father was running the same distance. Within six months, my body acclimatised to the routine and I began feeling great about myself. Subsequently, I came to be known as ‘the girl who ran’ instead of ‘that pretty girl’ or ‘that tall girl’ and I have to admit, it felt really good.”
Sidhu, who recently won gold in the women’s 25-metre shooting event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, also dwells on her own initiation into fitness. “When I picked shooting as my choice of sport, I believed that all it required was standing in one place, taking aim and pulling the trigger. Exercise was the last thing on my mind because my field wasn’t like wrestling or boxing where you had to work on your physical strength every single day. Two years down the line, I realised that the unilateral nature of the sport was wreaking havoc on my spine — it was affecting my posture and I was suffering from a disc bulge on my lower back. That was a wake-up call and I was only 19. I began visiting a physiotherapist who incorporated physical activity into my daily routine without any delay.”
By now, the stage is set for Sidhu and Panag to get down to business. Executing planks with minimum effort, performing deep lunges and pulling off headstands with enviable ease, the two match one another rep for rep with each change in routine. Priding herself on her amenability and the eagerness to learn, Panag gets on a Bosu ball and Sidhu shows her how to maintain her balance with Zen-like serenity, accompanied by peals of laughter that ring through the room. I am astounded by the fact that at 39, Panag is as nimble-footed as a teenager even though she refers to herself as a ‘lazy athlete’. “I can only push myself to a point that I’m comfortable with. So, if my body has the potential for 35 push-ups in one go, I’ll probably quit at 30. I’ve tried to work my way around this languor and am now keen to pursue my Masters athletics. It is a class of the sport for athletes in track, field, road running and cross-country running. I believe that I have a reasonably good physique for my age. I may be thinking from the perspective of convenience, but the competition in this group is a lot less stiff than it was when I was younger and I have a good chance of actually winning!” she laughs.
Sidhu smoothly cuts in as she launches into her own explanation of how she thinks of fitness as an ever evolving journey rather than a destination. The first Indian pistol shooter to get to the number one spot in world rankings — a feat she achieved in 2014 — she wanted to train her body in a way that would allow her to excel at her game. Having never worked out until the age of 19, she started with basic core-strengthening exercises that would improve her posture and stability. “My first physiotherapist said that I was using all the wrong muscles while shooting and it was taking a toll on my body. A lot of that pain was alleviated when I first started working out and I also realised I could shoot for longer stretches at a time. Having worked with different doctors over the years, I retained their best teachings and have constructed a regime for myself. As I age, my body doesn’t recover as fast as it used to and I have to pay special attention to my joints and muscles to keep them from getting stiff between tournaments. I understand that my fitness routine will metamorphosize into something entirely different five years down the line and will continue to change 10 to 15 years from now — it’s the only way my body can sustain what I’m putting it through”, shares Sidhu.
The shooter then hands an air rifle to Panag and invites her to her turf and the actor, who also owns her own weapon, is only too happy to oblige. A quick lesson on how to determine eye dominance is underway and Panag claps gleefully as the shooter takes mere seconds to correctly point out which eye she uses to aim. They raise their pistols in unison to fire at a target when Panag notices just how much her own arms are quivering in comparison to Sidhu’s unflinching stance. Suddenly, I realise that I’m not really in the presence of an internationally acclaimed shooter and a Bollywood actor — they shrugged off those personas as soon as they walked through the door. What I see, instead, are two people who treat their bodies as temples and truly enjoy discoursing on fitness. I ask Panag about her goals and she says, “I should be able to lift a 25 to 30 kg suitcase from the conveyor belt all by myself and, more importantly, without hurting my back. Being fit is not about executing a particular exercise; it’s about being able to do it without breaking your body. Another misconception that has somehow been perpetuated is the fact that you need to lose weight for a particular event, say a graduation party or a wedding. You can’t just exercise vigorously during the time leading up to D-Day and then give it all up right after. That’s only going to do more harm than good to your body in the long run.”
Sidhu, meanwhile, laments at how today’s youth is capricious when it comes to their dreams and doesn’t really chase the stars anymore, exchanging long-term targets for frivolous fads. “There is so much external stimulation today in the form of television, social media and other technology. I see many talented youngsters taking up a sport that they fancy but they lack the perseverance to keep at it when they don’t succeed in the first few attempts. Being an athlete is not about winning a match and then getting complacent — there will be another match in the next 15 days, or two months and there are the Olympics every four years. The same principle applies to fitness too. There’s always another height to scale once you’ve rappelled to your original destination.”