It can be said without a shred of doubt that 2010 was a landmark year for 27-year-old Gagan Narang. He came into his own with a tally of individual medals and award-winning performances. Firmly putting the disappointment of the Beijing Olympics behind him – where the shooter missed making it to the finals by the proverbial whisker and Abhinav Bindra’s individual gold made him the darling of the country – the Taurean literally shot himself into the collective limelight last year in October. His six-medal haul at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi and his feat of shooting for a double silver on the opening day of the Asian Games in Guangzhou just a few weeks later have made him a new hero of India’s sporting arena.
The Punjabi shooter, who was born in Chennai – though his family hails originally from Haryana – grew up in Hyderabad where his parents finally settled. The very city that has produced winners like badminton ace Saina Nehwal and tennis wonder Sania Mirza. His father, B S Narang, was an engineer with Air India and his mother, an architect in the Military Engineering Services and they often moved base for their work.
Incidentally, Narang has become the first Indian to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics, proving that he is not one to rest on past laurels or brood over earlier disappointments. He takes both equally in his stride, with equanimity and maturity. And he has found his own ways of relaxing – in his leisure time he enjoys shooting of a different kind. In fact, his collection of photographs taken during the 2006 CWG has been published in a coffee-table book called Commonwealth Journey from Melbourne to New Delhi.
Currently world No 3 in the 10m Air Rifle category, Narang is no stranger to records and wins. On the eve of the Asian Games as he was readying to shoot, the sharpshooter indulged in a Q and A with Verve….
Was the six-medal haul at the CWG in Delhi one of the most memorable highs of your career?
I have had similar wins at the Melbourne CWG. But this win was bigger and better firstly because there were people to cheer me – people to recognise the painstaking efforts that go into the sport and there was the media to write about me!
On the completely reverse side was your performance at the Beijing Olympics, where your peer Abhinav Bindra eventually went on to win the gold medal….
True. To have been out of the competition at the Beijing Games by countback was a very rude shock. But I recovered and eventually went on to shoot the world record the same year at the World Cup finals in Bangkok.
For a long time, particularly after the Olympics, you have lived in the shadow of Abhinav Bindra. Is bonding with a competitor, even though he is a friendly rival, easy?
Abhinav is older and way senior to me in the sport. There is still a lot for me to learn. Abhinav and I share a robust relationship. Shooting is an individual sport. Unlike what is being projected in the media, we do not compete against each other; we compete against our own selves.
What are the demands of your sport?
Unlike other team sports like cricket, hockey or football, in shooting, an individual walks the route alone. Shooting may not be defined by the words ‘stronger, faster, higher’, but it is about achieving excellence. Every day one craves to grind the edges and sharpen them. It is an arduous journey that one must do alone. I chose it so I can’t complain. On the brighter side, when I win the gold medal, I do not need to share it.
You hail from Hyderabad – a city that is home to Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza. What is it about the place that inspires sporting success?
I dare say the biryani and the haleem. Hyderabadis are foodies but we are also very focused in wanting to achieve what we have set out to. Our hunger keeps growing and that is reflected in the outcome of whatever we do.
Were your parents happy with your unusual choice of sport – rifle shooting?
Without their backing I could not have pursued my dream. My dad even sold off a plot of land in the initial years of my shooting to buy me a rifle. I have done all my education in Hyderabad, including my Bachelors in Computers; I did not have the facilities at school or college but went to camps to practise the sport.
What triggered your passion for rifle shooting?
I took to shooting entirely as a fun and games pastime. While growing up, I was always an introvert, but fun loving. I wanted to explore new things. And I have always been a gadget freak. Like most of the people in my colony, I played the usual ‘catching the thief’ sport. I used to go to fairs and aim at balloons. But the real deal began when, at 14, my parents introduced me to a pistol and encouraged me to take this up as a sport. When I started off it was an amateur sport. I did not know where shooting would take me so I continued my studies side by side. I am still doing my MBA. I do believe that it will help me graduate to the next level.
You are currently in the top five of the world in your speciality – 10m air rifle shooting. How important is the ranking in the sport?
The numbers don’t matter. They keep on fluctuating. What is important is that one’s game must have consistency.
And, what about records and medals?
I try to go out with my guns blazing. I have carved a place in the record books or become part of sporting history. Creating records is very special but I do not go out with that on my mind. It happens along the course when the mind and the body are in sync. That is the most desirable state for any sportsman.
What is important at that crucial moment, when you are shooting to win?
Shooting is a highly mental game. Most importantly, the mind and the body have to be in sync. It isn’t simple because there is no template. Everyone does it in his or her own way.
Every individual has good and bad days. How do you ensure that your motivation does not dip?
The focus comes from the innate desire, the craving to excel…the craving to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It also comes from the high of rising on the podium and seeing the tricolour go up. The more wins one gets, the more one craves for. When you win one you are hungry for more…yeh dil maange more!
How stressful is the sport, physically and mentally?
I have a bad back and knee but it holds up during competitions. It is not easy to cope with stress but nothing is impossible. There are ways of dealing with it and I think I do it quite well. I do a lot of breathing exercises and have a mind trainer to train with. I cannot allow fears to colour my mind. I keep them away. The only anxiety that I have is performance anxiety and that helps me perk up my performance. But I must admit it is very tiring and can take a toll on an individual.
Off the shooting range, what do you enjoy doing?
I shoot with the camera when I do not shoot with my gun. My other hobby is aero-modelling remote controlled airplanes and helicopters. I love the good life and make every effort to achieve it. I love to wear things that fit me well. I am into branded clothing but also into stuff that makes me look good. I am a watch freak and have a small collection…I am conscious about the way I carry myself. And yet at home, my parents lead a Spartan lifestyle. I slip into that every time I go back to Hyderabad.