Those two 9s peg him back in his quest to finish on top of the podium in the 10m air pistol event at the Asian Airgun Championships. From first in the eight-man final, he is now fourth. A few yards behind Rai, national team pistol coach Pavel Smirnov furiously scribbles some notes. Rai recovers, shooting a 10.0 in his next shot, but it is followed by four shots in the 9s in the following seven. The home favourite eventually had to settle for bronze, behind Iran’s surprise winner Safari Boroujeni (198.7) and compatriot Gurpreet Singh, who shot 197.6.
He was lucky even to finish on the podium. Rai was on the verge of exiting after 16 shots but Saudi Arabia’s Alnazi Atallah, who was in silver medal position, choked and recorded a dismal 7.2 in the elimination shot to bow out and give Rai a freash lease of life. But Rai, ever so calm and unflappable in pressure situations, fumbled. Yet again.
However, Rai hasn’t been able to convert the high qualifying scores into medal-winning performances in the final, where shooters have to start from zero.
After a high-flying 2014, Rai’s form seems to have plateaued this year. By this time last season, the 28-year-old had won an unprecedented six international medals. In 2015, however, he has only two bronze medals, including Tuesday’s, to show for his efforts.
Pistol coach Smirnov believes Rai, billed as one of India’s top medal prospects in Rio next year, is starting to feel the pressure as the expectations rise and the Games approach. “I think we could have done much better today. Our performance in pressure situations isn’t the best. We have to get better at it,” Smirnov says. “I guess shooters start to feel pressure as the Olympics get closer. But it’s not a concern as we know how to deal with it.”
Smirnov’s observation is not restricted to Rai alone. Gurpreet, who too has won an Olympic quota, also has had a fabulous season in terms of the scores he has recorded. But in an overall field that shoots higher scores, he has failed to deliver in the final.
The shooting team’s mental trainer Vaibhav Agashe rates Rai as one of the fittest marksmen in the country. He says Rai indulges a lot in mental rehearsal and visualization techniques, which help him in improving his scores. One such aspect that Rai has been working on is recreating the scenarios he faces in the final during his training sessions.
“I have been shooting good scores, so that’s one thing I take confidence from. But in the final, something’s missing. It’s more about mental and physical training in the final and the only way to improve it is by competing in as many finals as we can. During training, we practice final format. We replicate scenarios we face in the final of big tournaments and prepare ourselves for the big occasion,” Rai says.
The shooter, however, insists he has been dealing with pressure well, but sometimes tries too hard after getting a good start, which then derails his plans. “I have been dealing with pressure well, I feel. But you can always improve. We have to think about the Olympics as any other shooting competition. After all, we will face the same shooters against whom we compete for rest of the year. Olympics, of course, are big but we can’t be intimidated by it,” he says.