Today’s special: Olympic medalist Vijay Kumar takes tentative steps back into shooting at the highest level

There’s this silver medal recently won by London 2012 Olympic Games silver medalist Vijay Kumar, which he’s going to great lengths to subvert. It was at an inter-Indian police meeting.

“Others certainly didn’t shoot as well,” he says and shoots dead straight.

“Actually, the department insisted because I was a gunman. So I entered reluctantly, not expecting a medal.”

“Qualification score was theek-thaak (ok).”

Come ci, come approx.

Vijay Kumar shoots Vijay Kumar during a training session.

Vijay is dampening any expectations of a fairytale comeback at the upcoming World Championships in Cairo, saying it’s too early for his return to hit the high notes of performance. However, he has his sights firmly set on the Olympic Games in Paris. And as he returns to the Indian team, exactly four years since he last competed in Changwon Worlds 2018, Vijay says he’s happy to have fired in the super-fast, knee-jerk 25m rapid-fire event. Happy yes, haughty, not quite.

“I only qualified as #3 in the rankings in India. The scores weren’t too high,” he issues a disclaimer, again recalling a gradual buildup and the lower levels he fumbles and climbs.

Ten years since he won silver in London in a stunning Rapid Fire final that ended without a European on the podium, Vijay says he’s not too bothered by the changed format of the competition (8-man instead of 6-man -Final). “The last format change (hit-or-miss, 9.7 or higher was hit, anything but miss) was also changed right before the London games. Now there is a new format (back to 8 in final + semi-final duels), so the third rule change in my career. I agree. I’m always fine,” he laughs.

Has the shooting been forgotten in the years he’s been missing since 2018? “I’ve never been away from sports. But he wasn’t good enough to qualify (for top events),” says Vijay frankly.

After completing his 16-year service in the Army in 2017, he joined the Civilian Armed Forces and was appointed DSP of Himachal Police. “I hadn’t qualified for the Olympics so I figured I might as well do my service training. It was a good time to start and the right choice. Then, after 2019, the pandemic came and that helped because I was able to train systematically without the pressure of a big competition.”

Vijay Kumar, Vijay Kumar Shooting, Long Olympics 2012 Gunman Vijay Kumar joined Himachal Pradesh Police as a DSP.

He took a silver at the Inter-Police tournament without training, feeling inadequate about his preparations and declaring the silver a dull rather than a bright indication of the glorious return of an Olympic medalist in one of India’s most sentimental sports. But since London 2012, it’s been two fruitless Games for Indian shooters – suggesting the Olympics are a different kettle of fish and require different preparation.

“I campaigned for an Indian to qualify for Tokyo at Asias 2019. But unfortunately we couldn’t get the quota. You must master control of the weapon at crucial stages. We’re all learning, let’s see if we’ll be there in 2024,” he says.

But jumping into the World Championships — the same competition he last competed in — has Vijay excited and nervous at the same time. While completing his training, he missed shooting a few days, but mostly he got on with his new life. “It was 15-16 years of my life so obviously I would miss it. I’m always happy on a competitive range. That’s the only way you can learn and catch mistakes that you’ll never make in training,” says the 37-year-old from Hamirpur.

Back on the bike

Vijay says that when you’re out of long-term training, but your mental state is good and your willpower is strong, it only takes a few days to get your grip back. In the meantime, a day job beckoned.

“I reached the rank I could attain after 16 years and automatically retired in 2017. It took two years to process the police file and in November 2018 the declassification was complete. It was a significant change, although both services are civilian, one. This involved a lot of academic stuff – case files, investigations, trials, dealing with detection tools,” he explains. Bandobast (arrangement), traffic and court sessions – the days passed.

Vijay Kumar, Vijay Kumar Shooting, Long Olympics 2012 Vijay Kumar at his HP Police Office.

Policing involves more public business and books. “I was ok in my studies. Never failed a class at school. But in the first few days of training, it was difficult to concentrate,” he says. Those exhilarating moments of Olympic podiums and congratulations and the athlete’s typical bubble life became a distant memory.

India, meanwhile, staggered from Olympia to Olympia – a medalless nightmare likely to end in 2024. Armyman Gurpreet Singh just missed the final in Rio – he finished seventh in rapid fire. But with no one able to pin down the RF quota for Tokyo, Gurpreet’s near-miss hurts even more.

For Vijay, December 2021 was when the itch to compete in the big league got too much. “A circular came in late 2021 and I sent in an application saying I wanted to participate. It was approved,” he says, sounding happy to be back. He would start with a week-long workout and retrace his steps.

“There are 4 to 5 points to follow that can earn you a respectable score. Body stability, smooth grip, continuity of movement, challenge per shot, per series. However, it takes time to regain stability,” he says.

Vijay’s London silver was special as only 8 of 57 Olympic medalists since WW2 Rapid Fire were non-European. It’s a staggering 85 percent from Europe in what ranks as the fastest and most responsive event in sport shooting on the range. It’s accuracy yes, but accuracy in acceleration as RF (Rapid Fire) shooters aim at five lined up targets in a series shot over 8 seconds, 6 seconds and the hardest – 4 seconds. It’s quite fun to watch but has always demanded slightly superhuman reflexes on the hand-eye coordination metric as they go along a horizontal axis while aiming to be better than 9.7. Vijay’s silver in 2012 came from a particular ability for speed alongside tremendous preparation.

Vijay Kumar, Vijay Kumar Shooting, Long Olympics 2012 For Vijay, December 2021 was when the itch to compete in the big league got too much.

There’s no age limit in rapid-fire, although Vijay — after overcoming a slight insult he feels when asked if instincts wane with age — insists, “My reaction rate when shooting is still good. I use the old technique and feel the same speed as before.”

Cuban Leuris Pupo won the silver in Tokyo at the age of 44 in Rapid Fire. He had been the surprise Olympic champion in London, winning gold ahead of Vijay in 2012 while beating the studied perfection and insane accuracy of Russia’s Alexei Klimov, who set a record in qualifying. This was his 4th Olympiad, having competed in Sydney in 2000. Pupo won silver 21 years after his first games in Tokyo and Vijay thinks he can get a second chance too.

tough competition

Rapid fire with legends such as the three-time Olympic champion Ralf Schumann and later Christian Reitz (gold in Rio, bronze in Beijing), is currently under the spell of the French sniper with gap teeth, Jean Quiquampoix (pr: Ki-kaam-puaa) – silver in Rio and gold in Tokyo. Paris will be another chapter for the 20-something man who shoots at home, although there are always crowds of Chinese competing.

Vijay’s silver was also significant because the Chinese, despite dominating rapid-fire at World Championships, have never managed to improve on their bronze position at the last three Olympics. The Germans and Russians are quite impressive at this event and only six Asians have ever won a medal in RF.

Silver medalist left to right Vijay Kumar Silver medalists left to right Vijay Kumar, Tamang Pemba, Gurpreet Singh in the Men’s 25m Medium Pistol event at Ongnyeon International Shooting Range (Source: PTI)

Preps have pushed Vijay back into “hostel life,” where he lives in a dorm-like environment, stays away from family, and focuses on very extreme physical training to seek technical perfection over long hours spent honing his zone with hardcore simulations. “It’s hard to go back to this hostel life. But I don’t crib. I was never in the army, won’t be now. That’s what we decided. That needs a medal. All medalists prepare like that,” he says simply.

Vijay’s neck was in bad shape in 2014 due to the sheer imbalance of his posture, and his back was quite broken in what felt like a spinal syntax error – a badge of honor for all shooting medalists. “It was operated on in 2014 and repaired after 6 months of rehab. I feel stronger on 8/6/4 than before and now with 8 shooters in the finals things should get interesting. The neck is perfectly fine,” he says.

This isn’t the creaky Terminator’s return to Shooting Pro, however. His personality, similar to the level-headed realism of the other three Indian medalists (Rajyavardhan Rathore, Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang), avoids all those flourishes. Vijay laughs these images away, although the Indian shooting could do with a dash of sensational return to Paris of one of his four medal-winning Musketeers – such was his inexplicable horror run chasing an elusive medal from Rio to Tokyo.

How did his fellow shooters react when they saw him again? “Some were shocked, few were jealous. But many were happy,” he laughs.

Hopes will always rest on the young bunch with his amazing talent and fearless nature. But here’s a shooter who went to an Olympics, brought back a silver medal, and had no illusions that a medal could just be conjured out of a target. The Rapid Fire is the only surviving shooting event that dates back to 1896. Vijay Kumar knows the ancient methods of pickling to perfection. He doesn’t promise a medal but will do his best.

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