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A smile slowly cracked on Heena Sidhu’s face, coupled with a quick wave she gave at the cheering audience in Palembang. You could tell that the entire disposition was half-hearted. In the stands, the applause was for Sidhu’s composure to rise from the seventh position in the early stage of the 10 m women’s air pistol final, to winning the Asian Games bronze medal.
From the inside though, you could tell she was burning. Moments ago, she trailed Qian Wang of China and Min Jung Kim of South Korea by 0.1 points. The pair shot an identical 10.0 in their next effort. Compared to the momentum Sidhu had built up in her last three shots, it was a comfortable margin to beat. She had notched 10.3, then followed up with a 10.2, and pulled close to the joint-leaders drastically with a near-perfect 10.8.
But for the shot that would help her avoid elimination and take her ever so close to the gold, (she needed at least a 10.1) she shot 9.6. By that time though, she had ensured India’s medal tally would increase with her bronze medal.
This wasn’t the first time Sidhu has medalled at the Asian Games though. In the 2010 edition in Guangzhou, she won silver in the team event, followed by bronze in the team event at Incheon 2014.
At the current edition though, she qualified for the final of the individual event for the first time. “She did that with a very ordinary performance in the qualifiers,” says Ashok Pandit, her father-in-law and former Commonwealth Games champion. “I already told her she needs to pull that score up at the World Championships. But for now, it was about shooting efficiently and making the cut rather than getting the highest score in the qualifiers.”
Among the pool of 43 competitors in the qualification stage of the 10m air pistol event, Sidhu shot 571 to finish seventh (the cut-off was 570). It was good enough to get her to the final, which is the stage Sidhu has been training towards for the past few months. “Ronak (Pandit’s son and Sidhu’s husband and coach) and Heena have been simulating finals a lot during practice, putting pressure on her to help her improve her concentration,” Pandit says. “She’s already an experienced shooter so she knows how to handle these situations. But it was also good that she got to practice them before the main thing. That made a big difference.”
True to her style, she made a slow start in the final, dropping to seventh after two rounds. But as the elimination leg kicked in, Sidhu shot nine 10.0-plus scores in 12 attempts to secure the bronze. Over the years, Ronak, a former Commonwealth Games gold-medallist himself, has been working on different ways to train his wife. Before the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast this year, he employed a new strategy to prepare Sidhu for the noise and distractions that come from the music and audience present in the shooting hall.
So for their training sessions, he’d order the rest of his students to stand near Sidhu while she practised, and shout taunting remarks at her. “It got very personal and we wanted it that way,” Ronak had told The Indian Express in April. “I want her to be so strong that when she goes to events like the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and Olympics, she will tell me that there was hardly any pressure there.”
At Gold Coast, Sidhu returned home with a silver in the 10m air pistol and gold at the 25m pistol event. With the specific training that came in the interim, Sidhu became more comfortable shooting under pressure, especially in finals.
After the qualification round, Pandit asserts he had no doubts about Sidhu’s chances of a medal.
“If you shoot brilliantly and come first in the qualifiers, that doesn’t mean you can’t be the first to get eliminated,” he says. “If that happens, it’s very embarrassing so there’s more pressure on you. Heena has the experience now to shoot efficiently. Just shoot well enough to get to the final because that’s where the medal is.”
Sidhu did just that. She performed well against a strong shooting lineup and earned a medal for her effort. And though she couldn’t at the exact moment her event ended, she deserves to smile.
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