New Delhi: “Papa, ho gaya". That’s all Manu Bhaker tells her father after the final of a tournament, through a WhatsApp message. And Ramkishen Bhaker knows its gold for his 16-year-old daughter.
Her messages may be short, but Bhaker’s strides in the world of competitive pistol shooting are not. The teenager who finished 49th at the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) Junior World Cup last year has won it this year. Not once but twice in four days.
Bhaker, with partner Anmol Jain, secured the gold medal in the 10m air pistol mixed team final at the ISSF Junior World Cup in Sydney on Tuesday. Bhaker also won an individual gold in the women’s 10 m air pistol event on Saturday.
The teenager from Goria village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district is going through a purple patch. Earlier this month, she won two gold medals in the 10 m air pistol individual and mixed team events at her maiden senior World Cup in Mexico, becoming the youngest Indian to win a gold medal at the ISSF World Shooting Championships.
Celebrations haven’t stopped in Goria, especially at the Universal Senior Secondary School, where Bhaker honed her skills before taking the shooting world by storm. “My wife has been distributing sweets every day at the school from the day Manu won the first gold medal," Ramkishen Bhaker says over the phone. “Friends who shoot with her in school are having their own party too."
Shooting wasn’t Bhaker’s first choice of sport—in fact, it comes way down a long list. “I’ve done boxing, skating, played cricket, table tennis, kabaddi, karate and Thang Ta (a Manipuri martial art) before this," Bhaker says over the phone.
She gets fiercely competitive. “I got competitive about shooting, too, when I tried it at school in 2016." And in her first school-level competition shortly after that, she had three podium finishes.
It’s been a spectacular journey for India’s youngest World Cup gold medallist. Bhaker made shooting her only target: she took extra evening classes at school to make up for what she’d missed, even carrying her books to national camps.
Her inexperience, Bhaker says, gives her an edge. In the 10m air pistol final in Guadalajara, Mexico, the Class XI student was up against local favourite Alejandra Zavala, a two-time World Cup gold medallist who also finished fourth at the 2016 Rio Olympics. With a 1.3 point lead going into the final shot, Zavala had the gold within her reach. But Bhaker was determined. Her final shot was 10.7, while Zavala could only manage an 8.8.
“I was really happy that I was going to win silver," Bhaker says. “I think not knowing the other shooters and their achievements actually helped me."
Her books and Morini pistol aren’t the only things Bhaker juggles. There’s also her conflicting personality on and off the range. “My daughter is extremely talkative," asserts her father. “Restless and curious. She always has plenty of questions for her coaches. So it’s the coaches who are always on their toes when Manu is around." On the range, looking at the target through the eyepiece, she is a different person. Her feet are still, face devoid of any expression. “I switch on and off quite easily. I do yoga and meditation and that helps me," she says.
“What she has achieved is great, but this is just the start of a very long journey," says former shooter Jaspal Rana who is in charge of coaching India’s junior pistol shooters, a hint of warning in his tone. Bhaker is mindful of that journey and wants to take one step at a time. She has made it to the squad for the Commonwealth Games to be held in April and doesn’t want to think beyond that at this point.