CHENNAI:It had been quite a few years since KV Unnikrishnan and his wife Jayasree opened the glass shelf that occupies a prominent place in their Chennai home. “It’s all a bit dusty,” Unnikrishnan says, as he takes out a couple of photographs. The shelf, packed with medals won by their daughter, is a time machine taking you back to an age when India’s shooters weren’t yet shooting down medals by the dozens in international meets. And a time when those who did returned home in anonymity, with no reporters at airports, no hefty rewards. Locked in that dusty shelf is Roopa Unnnikrishnan’s journey as a shooter.
Twenty years ago, in 1998, Roopa returned from the Commonwealth Games with a gold medal — the first ever by an Indian woman shooter. That gold, in women’s rifle prone, was an addition to the silver and bronze won in Canada four years earlier. Unlike her present-day counterparts, whose soundbites from Gold Coast will include lines like ‘targeting Tokyo Olympics’, Roopa’s interviews reveal a shooter who wasn’t sure if she would continue shooting.
Roopa was 26 then. The next year, she won her Arjuna Award and moved to New York. In 2003, months before Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won India’s first Olympic shooting medal, Roopa had shot in her last international event. “To know that you have given every single non-study minute to a sport and dedicated that sport to your country and then realise that your country doesn’t really care, that was heartbreaking,” Roopa says.
Roopa was 12 when she started. Her father, a police official, was inspecting a newly-built shooting range, when the man in charge offered Roopa a chance to try it out. A few minutes later, he was running back to Unnikrishnan, demanding that she be sent for regular training. By 14, she was participating, and winning medals, in the national championships. “She was so dedicated to training that she would finish homework in school, so that she could spend 2-3 hours practising every day,” says Unnikrishnan.
Roopa did not have much access to live rounds, which meant that the majority of her training was holding a gun, firing blanks and imagining hitting the targets. “The many hours of dry practice — hold the rifle, go through the motions and then squeeze the trigger with an empty case loaded — meant that I’d do two hours of training a day without using a single live ammunition,” she says. “On weekend mornings, I’d train with live ammo, but only one live ammo for five dry practice shots. So where my richer competitors would have spent $60 a day, I’d have used $5 a day (`100 at that time.) All my equipment were given as gifts by family and friends.”
But the more Roopa progressed, the more it exposed her to the harshness that was Indian sports in the 90s. “She was interested in architecture and applied via the sports quota,” Unnikrishnan says. “Despite being a shooter with international medals, she was rejected. They gave it to a boy who had played cricket for Erode.”
Exit at her peak
By 1999, Roopa had quite a resume — apart from all her medals representing India, she had gone to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and represented the University as well. A national mark she had set a year before would stand for 12 years. But that year, she had to make a difficult choice — take up a job in New York or continue the thankless task of shooting. In a decade-and-a-half of representing the country, all Roopa got from the officialdom were her Arjuna and a `5 lakh grant from the Tamil Nadu government. “I tried to get sponsorship from Indian companies, but no one seemed to see the attraction. It was clear I’d need to have a strong profession,” Roopa says.
There, life changed. Her career took her places, she got married, had twins. “I continued shooting for 3 years after moving to NYC. However, when I sent in qualifying scores from my club in NYC, I was told that I needed to compete in India to qualify for international representation. When the kids came along, shooting became more of a hobby.”
Roopa’s life away from shooting has been fulfilling. She is head of strategy for Harman International and was vice-president of Corporate Strategy at Pfizer. Does she have regrets for leaving Indian shooting?
“Look at it this way. A Chennai girl won medals for the country, set records, got to carry the flag in 10 countries, got the Rhodes scholarship, became captain of an Oxford team, got to build a global business profile, wrote a book and made start-up investments. Only happiness that this happened.”