Shooting has been one of India's strongest suits when it comes to Olympic sports. But even though that's the case, the same can't be said about shotgun in the country due to various reasons. However, what transpired on Wednesday was something even Nostradamus would have found it hard to foretell. Bhowneesh Mendiratta went against the script to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Taking part in the ongoing ISSF World Championship, the 23-year-old from Faridabad, a new face at the senior circuit, punched above his weight to seal an Olympic quota for India in Osijek (Croatia).
This is the country's first quota in the sport. It was his first senior World Championships, but Mendiratta, ranked World No 144, went about his business like he had been around for years. Displaying nerves of steel, he was near-flawless in the business end of the competition.
Starting the day at 19th, Mendiratta needed a strong final round to stay in contention. In fact, compatriot Prithiviraj Tondaiman had his nose in front after two days (four rounds) in the three-day event. Mendiratta did just that, returning with a perfect score (25 out of 25) to stay in contention. Prithiviraj, meanwhile, missed two shots to finish 22nd.
Terming Bhowneesh's effort as outstanding would be an understatement. But the job was still far from over. In the ranking match, he was up against some experienced campaigners in Rashid Al-Athba (Qatar) and Derrick Mein (USA). Bhowneesh, however, didn't seem to be perturbed and was operating with plenty of poise, taking down the clay on demand from different stations (shooters have to hit the clay from different positions (also called stations). Mendiratta just missed one shot in the end to take the No 1 spot and enter the medal round.
In the four-man medal match, where there's no room for error, Mendiratta couldn't quite replicate his earlier form and paid the price after two misses in the first 15 shots, thereby becoming the first shooter to get knocked out. Mein went on to clinch the top prize.
Mendiratta was previously training under the guidance of Italian coach Daniele Di Spigno at the Manav Rachna Shooting Academy. In recent times, the youngster from Faridabad has been operating under the close watch of Mark Russell, who was appointed not so long back. On Wednesday, Mark, who was by his ward's side, wore a large smile on his face.
Even though Mendiratta's effort might have taken many off guard, it is not the case for everyone. "He's been shooting well in every competition. His lowest score was 115. He's been shooting 117, 120. In the last two, three competitions, he did well and that's how he made the team," a shotgun shooter, who has seen him up close in competition, said.
"It (today's performance) was almost a perfect performance by him. Shooting 121, hitting 25 in the last round, 24 in the ranking round," the coach added.
National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) secretary general, Kanwar Sultan Singh, felt this could spur everyone to get more quotas and medal at Olympics, a stage where Indians have failed to assert themselves in the last two editions. "We are extremely proud of his achievement. It gives us a great impetus towards bagging more quotas and we'll make all attempts to reach the podium. Whatever was lacking will be minutely looked into and be provided to the shooters," he said.
In the women's section, Neeru, Shreyasi Singh and Manisha Keer finished well below the qualification mark.