World within reach At 18, Rudrankksh Patil wins gold in the 10m air rifle

Rudrankksh Patil was tired of traveling to shooting ranges in the central and western suburbs of Mumbai, coolly carrying a gun case on public transport and pretending it was a guitar. And so he decided it was time to go back to school; Returning to the premises where he first encountered the sport as a 13-year-old.

It’s an uninspiring building in a dusty, congested, and remote corner of Thane, a city that boasts of cultural riches and calming lakes but is completely devoid of any sports scene. It was here, at a dimly lit shooting range with manual targets in the basement of a school, that Patil began the journey that has catapulted him to the top of the world.

On Friday, making his World Championships debut, Patil shot an impressive 633.9 total in the qualifying round. He then won the gold medal, becoming only the second Indian in a rifle after Abhinav Bindra. And sealed an Olympic quota in Paris. “At 18,” Patil quickly recalls.

Shooting in India has seen its fair share of teenage wonders. Saurabh Chaudhary, Manu Bhaker, Divyansh Panwar… the list is exhaustive. Most of them may be at a crossroads in their careers, but Patil – who was inspired by India’s teenage army of shooters and learned from how they broke records and won medals – has shown he’s the real deal, coaches say .

โ€œOne way to gauge a shooter’s quality,โ€ says national team coach Joydeep Karmakar, โ€œis to see how he performs at a World Cup. Rudrankksh shot a total in qualifying that no India had before him. Coming back from behind in the final and winning gold shows his strong mentality and the odds are the icing on the cake. It’s the best shot an Indian has had in recent memory.”

Not bad for someone who gave up the sport just a month after getting into it. “I was bored,” laughs Patil. “Standing in weird positions for two hours…so boring!” Patil laughs. That was in 2015. Patil was 13 at the time and had accompanied his father, Balasaheb, a police officer then stationed in Thane, to the inauguration of a school shooting range.

The coach, Snehal Kadam, urged Patil senior that his son, who was more interested in football, should try shooting. None of this made sense in the boy’s mind. “At first I thought they meant it was these military-style things where you lie on the ground and shoot things…then I thought it was like paintball. I didn’t know shooting existed as a sport,” he tells The Indian Express from Cairo.

“We had to tell him,” adds Balasaheb, “‘Woh Abhinav Bindra Wala Sport’.”

At least Patil had a clue now. He reluctantly went to the shooting range, only to quit a month later. But at his mother’s urging, he returned. “The coach called my mom and said I could be good,” says Patil. “I’ve played different sports, but this was the first time a coach said I could be good at something.”

Those words of encouragement were enough to get him back on the range. But an unsuspecting Patil still stumbled across โ€“ he didn’t have the basics of handling a rifle, didn’t know how to assemble lanes, and that one time he reached a final, he just copied every friend standing next to him that did .

Somehow, within a few months, Patil was competing at local and national school reunionsโ€”and winning. At one of the national school reunions, he met Ajit Patil, a Kolhapur-based coach who has shaped the careers of national team veterans such as Tejaswini Sawant and Rahi Sarnobat.

“Rudrankksh’s parents convinced me to move to Thane with him and train him full-time,” says Ajit. โ€œI had a financial crisis at my academy and had a hard time staying afloat. So I accepted that offer.โ€

Dimly lit area to the spotlight of the world

After spending a few months at a shooting range in the western suburbs, an hour from Thane, the duo moved to the school’s shooting range. Patil had watched enough live stream games and trawled through dozens of images to get an idea of โ€‹โ€‹what a shooting range should look like. The one at school didn’t even come close. โ€œIt was a very simple setup. The targets were manual, the lighting wasn’t right,โ€ says Patil. “So we set up a lane by first installing new auto targets and later, with the prize money from a few tournaments, installing new lights.”

The Patils began spending most of their time at the shooting range, getting there at 5 a.m. and staying well past noon. โ€œHe was immersed in the sport. He dominated events at national level, so he showed he had the skills,โ€ says Balasaheb. “But we were curious if he had the mental strength to dominate outside of India when he had to compete with the best international shooters.”

These doubts were dispelled on Friday. Patil, who once gave up the sport before he even pursued it seriously and trained in a run-down facility in a school basement, is now a world champion.

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