Archery demands a solemn silence and Deepika Kumari, standing firm and poised, commands the last sinews in her body to stay still. Gazing at her target, she pleads with her mind to quieten down to serenity. The bowstring pressed against her nose and lips. The arms are aligned. Her eyes pierce through the wind, visually living the kill moments before the arrow is released. She finds just the perfect moment between two beats in that meditative stillness when the heart is resting to release her arrow into the realm of excellence.
There is nothing ordinary about the constant grind to nurse your limbs into pillars of strength. Nudging the mind into a calm vacuum takes years of dedication, flirting as it were, with a sense of spirituality. But for a young girl whose introduction to archery came from aiming at mangoes and an escape from a dull existence in a village near Ranchi, instinct and determination were all the tools needed to catapult her into orbit.
Early Success, but Setback Followed
It was the heady aftermath of Abhinav Bindra’s triumphant Golden shot in the Beijing Olympics. Deepika shot her arrows right into the hearts of hungry Indian fans, who learnt to lust for more. And in just three years of taking to the sport, still a tender 15, the rustic champion trained her way to the top step of the 2010 Commonwealth podium from her base at the Tata Archery Academy. But it was in Antalya that she caught the world’s imagination with a stunning 6-4 blow to Korean Lee Sung-Jin to clinch Gold and climb the summit of Women’s Recurve.
However, the problem was that Deepika was a young girl, only just learning to be a woman. At 17, when most of her friends in Ratu Chati were contemplating marriage, Deepika was in London representing India in the Olympics. “Deepika crashes out,” screamed headlines. “Indian archery hit a new low,” screamed another. After a heady spin into the orbit of excellence, Deepika suffered from the burden of judgment, enduring some harsh criticism as a promising teenager.
“Those were hard days,” admitted Purnima Mahato, her renowned coach and a constant presence at the TAA and around the Indian team. “Deepika is a determined person. She endured a difficult phase in 2013 and 2014, but even then, she never took her eye off the sport.”
“She may not have been happy at the time, but she never stopped working. As coaches, our role is to offer them support and continue providing them with the confidence needed to perform. In the case of Deepika, it was never a question of technique or skill. Of course, there are always small improvements, but more importantly, it was about training her mind to perform at a high level,” she added.
Deepika Continued To Reinvent Herself
The furnace of poverty ingrained a “must do” attitude in Deepika. And she has kept to it with a stubbornness that typifies her character. The 26-year-old approaches her job with grim determination and persistence, whether physical fitness, strength training or mental fortitude.
“Deepika is fiercely determined. She can focus on the job at hand and get over her disappointment by moving her target to a new goal,” says Sanjeeb Mukherjea, who wrote a book on the archer with Abhishek Dubey. “But it is hard to avoid thinking what may have been. Perhaps, that inquest might stop finally after Tokyo. We will wait and see.”
In the extreme attention over the Olympics, people forget that Deepika has reinvented herself through the cycle of victory and defeat with unfailing regularity. After the disappointment of London, she was quick to win Gold in stage 3 World Cup at Medellin, 2013, before taking Silver in the FITA Archery World Cup later that same year.
“With Deepika, we were able to offer her moral support and protect her during the hard times that followed her after the Olympics. As a team, we were able to offer her support and comfort, especially when she was dealing with doubt and disappointment,” said Farzan Heerjee, the Chief of Protocol and Sports.
As in 2012, before the London Olympics, Deepika was in great form going into the Rio Games. In April that year, she matched the world record feat of London Gold medallist Ki Bo-bae, scoring 686 out of 720 in the first stage of the World Cup in Shanghai. But once again, the Olympics cast a cloud over her, leading to another round of disappointments, suffering a sudden unexpected dip in the round of 16.
Atanu Das had known Deepika since the two joined the TAA in 2008. The two friends found more profound chemistry, though, in shared experiences. They could each understand the other’s strife, having suffered defeat in Rio, sliding off the small margins that determine victory in archery. One wants to stand out, the other desires to dissolve into the shadows. The two complement each other. Each has a pass to the other’s mind, an essential tool in the arsenal of an archer. “It is about being present all the time. Understanding that the past and the future are a mirage,” explains Atanu, when asked about the secret to their strength as archers.
An Example for Others
Abhinav Bindra observes sport with a uniquely nuanced perspective, drawing from his experience and intellect. “It takes hunger, the ability to adapt not only to circumstances but also to the constant changes in your body to perform at a high level,” offers the ace shooter about the secret sauce for sustained excellence. “You have to place your well-being at the heart of high performance, remain open-minded and constantly be willing to learn.”
Deepika ticks off plenty of those boxes.
“The high-performance centre in Jamshedpur, where we train athletes for excellence, owes its genesis to the disappointments of Deepika,” says Mukul Chaudhari, the Chief of Sports Excellence. “She is a thorough professional and we have seen her dedicate herself to the task at hand, irrespective of the results.”
The tenacious archer carries the gold dust of resilience on her bowstrings. Despite the setback in Rio, she found her aim again, winning Gold at Salt Lake City in 2018 and then in Guatemala earlier this year. The arrow can only find its home in the 12.2cm bulls’ eye, in that precise moment when the heart is at rest, in between beats. And Deepika resonates with that silence.
(Anand Datla is a sports writer and a social worker with over two decades of experience in narrating tales of valour and vain efforts from around the world. He has attended and reported from international sporting events in badminton, cricket, golf and tennis.)
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