At the World Archery Championships (WC) in Copenhagen, in July, Indian women took on Russia in the recurve finals. This championship, held every two years, is a prestigious one for archers. India had come close to a world championship in 2011, in Italy, but had to settle for silver. Deepika Kumari, Laxmirani Majhi and Rimil Buriuly were aware of that moment in history. The trio from Jharkhand went in, arrows flying, winning the first two sets to lead with 4-0. They were all smiles and quiet confidence. But as the match heated up, nerves began to show. And before they knew it, Russia bounced back, winning the next two sets to equalise. After this, the Russians appeared far more assured in the shootout. When Buriuly shot an eight, it was almost over for India. To stay in the match, Kumari had to shoot a 10. She came up with nine and India went home with another silver.

The archers, though, are no greenhorns in the big league. Between them, over the past decade, Kumari, Majhi, Buriuly, Bombayla Devi Laishram, Dola Banerjee and Chekrovolu Sworu have won medals in all major championships other than the Olympics. Individual or team medals have come from the World Cup, Commonwealth and Asian Games, Asian Championships, European Grand Prix and the WC. The performance at Copenhagen gave them the ticket to Rio. Their longtime coaches, Dharmendra Tiwari and Dronacharya awardee Purnima Mahato, see them as a strong bet at the Olympics.

But before that, Tiwari and Mahato have set their sights on a different target — preparing the players mentally for the big fight.

Eyes on the prize

On a clear, warm September morning, quiet efficiency reigns over the shooting range at the Tata Archery Academy (TAA) in Jamshedpur. Tiwari and Mahato watch as the archers line up, group themselves into three and shoot at targets 70m away. All the top archers are participating in the ongoing national camp. Veterans like Banerjee are at hand too, to set right technical niggles. Buriuly believes there is healthy competition among the archers. The selection for the final team to Rio will be made next year. “All top 10 girls have equal chance. There is tension, but that ought to be there,” she adds.

Mental toughness and handling of pressure often crop up in Tiwari and Mahato’s conversations. “Archery is also a mental game,” says Tiwari. “When an arrow leaves the bow, an archer should mentally feel good and confident about it.”

Buriuly vividly remembers the moment things turned at Copenhagen. The two-set lead had sent her into a tizzy. “I learnt that till the last tie-breaker is played it is not over.” She still cannot fathom how she shot a dismal eight. “In the earlier round against Japan, we all shot 10. But the atmosphere in the finals is different with the cameras and the crowd around. And my focus wavered,” she admits.

Mahato, who watched the trio lose the tie-breaker, sees a pattern. She has noticed that her players — most of them from rural Jharkhand — falter at the big arena. She remembers Kumari’s heartbreaking first-round loss at the London Olympics. The world number-one player that year, Kumari had landed in London, battled viral infection and found herself up against an English player in the opener. “Home support for her opponent was immense. They announced each of her achievements. When it came to Deepika, all they said was ‘she is a top Indian archer,’” says Mahato.

In archery, only the big tournaments are played before a crowd. Indian archers have often found boisterous crowds disconcerting. “I can understand the situation better now. At the Olympics, I got scared just seeing the number of people watching. There will always be nervousness, but in a good way,” says Kumari.

The Archery Association of India, the TAA and the Sports Authority of India are together working to equip the players to handle pressure better and stay focused. Early this year, American mental trainer Lorenzo Beltrame conducted a 15-day session with them. He is expected to be back in December. The Olympic Gold Quest is providing mental trainers, and the team has a physiotherapist and a manager at hand. The training includes yoga and swimming. Though the women’s team is qualifying for their fourth straight Olympics, this time they seem determined to get things right. It’s only a week since Kumari, Majhi and Buriuly returned from Rio after playing the test event.

“We never played test events before. Tests give an idea about the atmosphere and weather in the host city,” says Mahato. The team lost to China in the quarters, but lessons were learnt. She says, “Archery will be held where carnivals usually happen. The stages will be built at a higher level. We will make a similar stage here for practice.”

Battles of the mind

For sports authorities and coaches, Rio may be about setting right a few things. For the players, an Olympic medal is the ultimate sporting glory. It assuages years of toil, battles with poor form, moments of hopelessness and months of pushing themselves to the extreme. After shooting nearly 200 arrows during her morning practice, Kumari sits down for a short break. Her two-year-long lean patch has tested the 21-year-old’s resolve, yet she is Indian archery’s most famous product. She has two individual golds from the Commonwealth Games and another from the World Cup. An Arjuna award has also come her way. But nothing has eased the pain of the past two years. “It has been very difficult. There have been times when I wanted to leave everything and go home,” says Kumari. “I have risen only to fall again.”

Tiwari considers this an inevitable phase in a sportsperson’s life. “When you are young, you don’t think much. But the older you grow and the more knowledge you have about the game, the tougher it gets,” he says. The London Olympics, he adds, is a case in point. “The players who won were either very young or very experienced.” Unlike in other sports, archers enjoy longer playing years; some even play for over 20 years. Tiwari knows Kumari will eventually tide over the poor form.

As a novice, Kumari had shot without a care in the world. “Shoot and win was all I thought about. But as I became aware of expectations, I feared failure.” Her individual performance has slumped, but the bronze at the second World Cup this year has been a solace. Her battles are internal rather than on-field. Paying little heed to unsolicited advice, she looks within for answers. “I am constantly talking to myself. I know it is all in the mind,” she says.

Her coaches help her on the technical side. Her bow strength has been increased to 42 pounds to allow better endurance in windy weather. Her family is standing by her too. “If not for them, I would not be here,” she says.

Archery may be her life now, but when Kumari joined the Sarai Kela Archery Academy as a teenager, she only wished to decrease the burden on her family. “I hadn’t even seen a bow. All I thought was they would give me food, clothes and a place to stay.” But, soon, she was hooked. “Then I came to TAA and, god knows, the only thing I wanted was to stay here all my life. I had the best coaches.” For motivation, all she needed was a glimpse of her seniors’ medals.

The shadow of bad form, however, lingers over Kumari. “At times I felt it was better to die. All I can think while sleeping and eating is about that arrow not getting to target. Archery is a mindgame. When an arrow leaves your bow, you have to feel 100 per cent about it.” The WC silver and Olympics qualification have done her morale good. After Copenhagen, Kumari went to Warsaw for the fourth stage of the World Cup. Though she didn’t win a medal, her performance was heartening. “After a long time, I was shooting confidently without fear,” she says. This month she is off to Mexico City to play in the World Cup finals. With a year left for Olympics and tournaments lined up, Kumari desperately wants to be on that team to Rio.

Just before the World Archery Championship in Copenhagen, nothing was going right for Majhi too. Her shots were haphazard, some arrows even landed outside the target board. “This was happening two days before the tournament and Tiwari sir was worried,” she recalls. Majhi practised on a 10m range and the coaches made minor technical changes. She peaked right on time. She played a key role in the team’s silver and shot a few tens. She also finished a career-best fourth in the individual event, losing the bronze to the world number-two, the South Korean Choi Misun.

At 26, Majhi is the oldest in the team and her career has seen ups and down. “You fall, you get up,” she says, “Once you enter archery, you can’t get out, even if you want to. The game keeps pulling you back.” Mahato pins grand hopes on her. Now a railway employee, Majhi has to apply for leave if she has to attend camps and tournaments. All she desires is camps and coaching till Rio. “No camp means no scope for excellence.”

The fingers Buriuly uses to release the bow string are painted blue and orange. A mehendi design runs down the first finger, upto the edge of her hand. Her recent lessons have been on remaining calm. The psychologists are a huge help, she says. “They are helping me relax and handle pressure better.” Having been an archer for close to 20 years, Banerjee has seen change sweep through the game. “In our time, an international tour a year was considered good enough. But things began to change after the Busan Asian Games in 2002. That was the first time we had a good international performance.” She actively played at a time when there were no managers or physiotherapists to help. She is glad that the process for getting equipment has become simpler. “I definitely see progress. But compared to other countries, it is slow.”

The players are warming up for the Nationals. Before the Olympics in August, there is the World Cup. “An Olympic medal is close at hand. The players just have to scale up their performance on the big stage,” says Mahato.

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