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Aiming for the stars

The countdown has begun but star archer Deepika Kumari isn’t in the least bit fazed. “My aim is to be the champion in which-ever competition I take part in,” says the 18-year-old, who’s just left for the London Olympics.

Deepika has set out on her journey confident in the knowledge that she’s ranked Numero Uno in the world in her category. Only a few weeks ago she snatched the top slot in women’s individual recurve archery from a Korean archer. The Koreans are the stars of the archery world.

It’s been quite a journey for Deepika who’s been aiming at the bullseye ever since she was 13. And it hasn’t been easy for the daughter of an auto-rickshaw driver and a nurse at Ranchi Medical College who were worried that she’d neglect her studies.

“I first heard about archery from my cousin Deepti. I saw it, liked it and decided to pick it up,” says Deepika. She joined the Arjun Archery Academy in Seraikela-Kharsawan (a district in Jharkhand) in 2007 when she was 13, beginning with bamboo bows and arrows. In 2008, she joined the Tata Archery Academy (TAA).

The Olympic archery battles will take place at that Mecca for cricket lovers — the Lord’s Cricket Ground. And to help her counter the strong winds that she may encounter, she’s been practicing with a heavier recurve bow for the last eight months.

The last few months have been hectic. In May and June, Deepika and some other archers headed for Gangtok.“The Calcutta heat effectively cut the practice sessions to half, since it was difficult to practice even for four hours,” says Purnima Mahato, the women’s team coach for the Olympics.

Before that she, Mahato and archer Jayanta Talukdar were in Gwangju, South Korea, for a month. Deepika practised alongside a professional Korean women’s archery team at Gwangju University. She got a taste of the type of facilities on offer abroad as the archers were in heated rooms shooting arrows into the open where it was bitterly cold. “Practising there really did improve my skills,” says Deepika. She has also been mentored by TAA’s South Korean coach, Lim Chae Woong, in India since last year.

What’s the biggest challenge at the mother of all sporting events? “Playing in front of such an immense crowd,” says Deepika. But does she usually get nervous? She thinks for a second, then giggles and says no.

And you see her confidence even when she is practising. She’s calm, relaxed, even giggly. But once she takes her stand, spreads her shoulders and draws the bow, the world fades away.

There are three types of archery, recurve, compound and Indian Round (in which players shoot with bamboo bows and arrows). Deepika began training in recurve at TAA. “Recurve is the top form of archery and is played in both Olympics and the Asian Games, unlike compound,” says Mahato. Six Indian archers — both men and women — have qualified for the Olympics.

Deepika’s archery career has not been all smooth sailing. Her father was doubtful about how she’d manage to live at TAA and continue with her studies. But Deepika convinced him.

In the five years since she’s left home, the youngster has picked up an impressive number of medals. There was the team silver in the 2008 Asian Archery Grand Prix in Bangkok and the individual gold medal in 11th Youth World Archery Championship in Ogden, USA in 2009.

Her Midas touch continued in 2010 with more medals and also the individual and team golds at the Commonwealth Games. And, in May this year, she bagged the World Cup individual gold medal in Turkey.

Deepika has kept her promise to her father. Currently a second year Arts student in Jamshedpur’s KMCT college, she juggles archery and studies. But with the Olympics just weeks away, her books have been put aside. The packed schedule at the national camp in the Sports Authority of India Eastern Centre, Calcutta, begins at 6am with running, exercise and yoga for 90 minutes. And over two training sessions during the day Deepika shoots about 400 arrows daily.

Her fitness has improved over the years, thanks to an hour everyday spent gymming and circuit training for increased muscle endurance. She also has to complete six laps of the 400-metre ground every morning. Add to that, a 45-minute run every alternate Saturday. However, with the Olympics just days away, the weight training has been stopped to avoid over-exertion.

So, what gives her an edge over others? “She has a hunger to win,” says Mahato. She’s never complacent, always pushing herself to achieve. “I may tell them to take an evening off after a competition but may just find Deepika shooting arrows instead,” she adds.

As for Deepika, her dimpled smile returns. “There’s still so much to do.” Her eye never for a moment leaves the bullseye. u