Trust ki lagi padi hai. (My confidence is in the doldrums)
Deepika Kumari sums up her main challenge ahead of a busy set of competitions in 2022, including the World Cups and Asian Games.
Less than eight months ago, the Indian archer was live on screens across the country, her heart rate soaring between shots displayed and the thought of another unsuccessful Olympics rushing her into her own public hellhole. Tokyo was his third Games. In his head, it was supposed to be different. A very first medal would have been historic. Without it, even a decent performance could soon wither away.
But after a few honorable rounds, she and her wife, archer Atanu Das, returned to India discouraged and plunged into a two-month hiatus to purge themselves. “Even during the break, I kept thinking that everyone was probably training,” says Deepika, “Phir se bow kheench paenge ya nahi soch rahi thi (I was wondering if I would be able to shoot the bow again). It was hard to switch off completely.”
Once out of their self-imposed break, Deepika and Atanu decided to break from routine. They traveled to Jabalpur to practice at a fairly new private facility where they had never shot before, then flew to snowy Nevada in February for the Las Vegas Shoot – the world’s biggest archery competition. indoor arc to the world. This is a far cry from the usual catalog of outdoor events that make up any given year for Indian archers. The targets are closer, the coats of arms are different and there are no vagaries of wind or weather. Recurve archers often use larger arrows for better flight indoors and adjust the fletching since arrows only spend a fraction of the time in flight indoors compared to outdoors. Since indoor archery is not an Olympic discipline, the competitions are not officially sanctioned by the Indian Archery Association. Indian players have to finance their own trips if they fancy an opportunity. Like Deepika and Atanu did this time, with the support of Olympic Gold Quest. This was just before they were removed from the Target Olympic Podium Scheme list of government supported athletes.
“When you rub shoulders with a Brady Ellison outside of a conventional outdoor event, even his anecdotes can be enlightening,” says Atanu, “Even though in a different format, those events have one-on-one matches. few World Cups, we are rarely thrown into game situations.”
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The event, which had more than 3,000 archers this year, has been around for more than five decades. But this was the first time Deepika had found herself at the tournament – a melting pot of up-and-coming archers, scholarship seekers, Olympic champions, big-name equipment sellers strutting their stuff on the latest merchandise – and experiencing a parallel universe. “The indoor event was liberating. It’s the kind of tournament we should be in often, as most of the best archers in the world do. It was like a mela (fair)… No tension, no pressure, everyone’s there to shoot arrows and that’s the kind of attitude we have to develop, we always overthink things and sometimes we’re under pressure that isn’t even meant to be ours.
The former world No 1 hints at her recurring Olympic heartbreak. In Tokyo last year, she beat double Olympic silver medalist Ksenia Perova in a shoot-off before losing in the quarter-finals to top seed and eventual champion Korea’s An San. Atanu also picked up an impressive win over London Olympic gold medalist Oh Jin Hyek but fell in the preliminary quarters to home prospect Takaharu Furukawa.
India has never won an archery medal at the Olympics. “When you think we don’t have a single medal in history so we can’t mess it up, that’s just the wrong kind of pressure,” Deepika said. Anxiety can often trigger overthinking which, in turn, can cripple on-field processes that occur naturally in athletes. “It’s not just about what people expect from you, but also what you expect from yourself. I know I wasn’t good enough in Tokyo, otherwise I would have a medal with me today. When you fail after telling yourself ki yeh karna hi hai (that I have to), you start to doubt everything you know. I started to wonder what I’m still doing with myself.”
Being married to someone who goes through the same wringer worked as an emotional bonus for Atanu and Deepika. “Between us, I think I was more devastated after Tokyo,” Deepika says, “I’m trying to get better at positive self-talk, goal setting, and worrying less.”
She should do a lot in the days to come. Selection trials for the Asian Games in Hangzhou begin Monday at SAI, Sonepat and they are set to move on to a World Cup in Antalya in April. Atanu and Deepika did not find a place in the squad for the Asian Cup World Ranking Tournament later this month after their first-round elimination from the National Ranking Tournament in January. These results were also cited for their exclusion from the TOPs, a decision that seemed to be around the corner after their screening in Tokyo.
Given that Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games program does not include archery this time around, the Asian Games are likely to be its focus. Deepika’s only podium at the Continental Games was a team bronze medal at the 2010 edition. As I got older, I knew people were watching me and the pressure to win a medal increased,” she said. “If you let that happen to you, you lose focus. Khud ko hi bhool jaate hai (lose sight of yourself).”
At 27, Deepika jokes that she feels like she’s been in the public eye forever. She was only 18 when she became world No. 1 in the women’s classic ranking. Last year, she briefly regained her top spot after her hat-trick of World Cup gold medals in Paris and now finds herself one spot below. Over the past decade, India’s archery potential Olympic medal hope has been inextricably linked to its name. She had three chances and a possible fourth appearance at the Games is only two years away. The good thing is that she knows where to start now: dissociate herself from past results and continue with her activities.
“I can’t run away,” she said, “I have to go back and compete and win. Phir se khud ko ikattha kar rahe hai (I pull myself together).”