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From Arjuna to Dronacharya, Suma Shirur completes a circle

Suma Shirur remembers the day she first ventured into the Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Nineteen years back, riding on a rich haul from the Commonwealth and Asian Games from the preceding year, her husband tending to their two-year-old son outside the venue since children were not allowed to attend the ceremony, Shirur had walked in to receive the Arjuna award.

Two decades later, Shirur strode into the hallowed Durbar Hall again, this time to collect a Dronacharya award, a recognition of her contribution as a coach to para shooting. Shirur guided Paralympian Avani Lekhara to a 10m air rifle SH1 gold in Tokyo Paralympics last year.

“It was an amazing feeling. My son has grown into a young man now. Two decades have gone by. To have my family around this time to witness the moment was indeed special. My entire career flashed before my eyes,” said Shirur.

She is the first woman and only the fifth overall to receive the country’s top award for coaches in shooting. Professor Sunny Thomas (2001), Sanjay Chakravarty (2017), Jaspal Rana (2020), and Jai Prakash Nautiyal (2021) are the other shooting coaches who have received the Dronacharya so far. Rana and Shirur are the only shooters to have completed an Arjuna-Dronacharya double, a testimony to their excellence both as athletes and coaches.

Two of the four recipients — Chakravarty and Thomas — have coached Shirur at various stages in her career. To be in the same league as her coaches make the honour extra special, Shirur said.

“Sadly, Chakravarty sir passed away last year. He was one of my earliest coaches. He gave me one lesson that I pass on to my wards. He would tell me that I am very talented but I need to be more aggressive. You have to be a Jhansi ki rani, he would often say.”

“So, that’s what I tell my students — you have to be a fighter. You have to deal with each situation bravely and with dignity. You have to learn to slug it out,” she said.

A no-nonsense coach, Chakravarty once sent a young Shirur home because he deemed she was not focussed enough at the range.

“He would just know when you were not mentally present. It happened to me once. He asked me to pack my bags and leave. That was a lesson I’ll never forget,” Shirur recalled.

“With time, I have developed the same instinct. I know when a shooter is not focussed, and if it were to me, I’d follow sir’s methods and send them home, but these are different times.”

Shirur has been coaching Lekhara as well as the junior rifle team since 2018. Having never worked with a para shooter before, she was initially hesitant to groom Lekhara, but all it took was one meeting to change her mind.

“Avani had come with her father, and I found her to be extremely passionate and driven. I developed an instant liking for her and there was no way I was going to deny her a chance to learn,” said Shirur.

The teaching process turned out to be quite an eye-opener. Though the basics of rifle shooting remained the same, Shirur had to understand Lekhara’s needs.

“She is wheelchair-bound, so her balance while shooting needs to be spot on,” the coach said. That meant Shirur had to learn to pump air into the wheels of Lekhara’s chair at the right pressure, attune herself to her ward’s hydration and washroom breaks, and understand when she needed to be taken aside for some stretching.

“It was quite challenging, to be honest. I had to really immerse myself to understand her needs, but once I figured that out, it became a lot easier,” she said.

Shirur was part of the coaching team that accompanied the 15-member squad that returned empty-handed from the Tokyo Olympics last year. It was the second successive Games when Indian shooters had failed to win a medal, and the backlash, expectedly, was harsh. As a coach, keeping the team in good spirits during that phase remains one of her toughest tasks to date.

“It was a very young and a very talented bunch, but unfortunately we couldn’t win anything in Tokyo. After each disappointment, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the team’s morale high. As a coach, you are expected to egg on the players, but what does a coach do when she herself is losing hope?”

“All coaches tried to put up a brave face in front of the shooters, but by the time the last shooting event finished, I guess all of us knew that everyone’s spirits and morale were broken. It was not a pleasant time,” the 48-year-old said.

Shirur came home for a week — she was due to leave for the Paralympics later — and went on a short beach vacation with her family. The time away from range and scrutiny reinvigorated her for one final shot at glory.

“My job was made a lot easier by Avani. She was in sublime form. Once she qualified for the final beating a tough field, I knew we are in for something special. I just told her to enjoy herself,” she remembered.

Lekhara ended up equalling the then world record score of 249.6 in the 10m air rifle SH1 final, taking gold in the process. Days later, she followed it with a bronze in the 50m 3P SH1, becoming the first Indian shooter to win multiple medals at the Olympics or Paralympics.

Earlier this year, the 20-year-old broke her own 10m world record with a score of 250.6 at the Para Shooting World Cup in France, winning the gold medal and booking her spot in the 2024 Paris Paralympics.

“As a coach, you can only do so much. Ultimately, the medal is won or lost by the shooter. A student can make a teacher look good or bad,” Shirur said.

“Avani’s Paralympics gold will always be very special to me as it lifted the mood of the nation. She worked very hard for it. I am blessed to have been trained by some of the finest Indian and international coaches, and my biggest learning is that you never stop learning. The sport teaches you every day, and you must remain humble to accept the teachings,” she concluded.

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