Confidence that lagi padi hai. (My confidence is in the doldrums)
This is how Deepika Kumari paraphrases her troubles heading into a busy stretch of competitions in 2022, comprising World Cups and the Asian Games.
Less than eight months ago, the Indian archer was live on screens across the country, her climbing heart rate between shots on ticking display and the thought of another unsuccessful Olympics hurling her into her very own public hell. Tokyo was her third Games. In her head, it was supposed to be different. A first-ever medal would’ve been historic. Without it, even a decent performance could wither away soon.
But after a few creditable rounds, she and her spouse, fellow archer Atanu Das, returned to India despondent and plunged into a two-month break to purge themselves. “Even during the break, I kept thinking that everyone else is probably training,” Deepika says, “Phir se bow kheench paenge ya nahi soch rahi thi (I was wondering if I’d be able to draw the bow again). It was hard to switch off completely. “
Once out of their self-imposed pause, Deepika and Atanu decided to break away from routine. They traveled to Jabalpur to train at a fairly new, private facility where they’d never shot before and then flew to a snowy Nevada in February for the Las Vegas Shoot – the largest indoor archery competitions in the world. It’s far removed from the usual catalog of outdoor events that make up any given year for Indian archers. The targets are closer, target faces are different and there are no vagaries of wind or weather. Recurve archers often use fatter arrows for better flight indoors and tweak the fletching since arrows spend only a fraction of the time in flight indoors as compared to outdoors. Since indoor archery isn’t an Olympic discipline, the competitions aren’t officially sanctioned by the Archery Association of India. Indian players have to fund their own trips if they fancy an opportunity in them. Like Deepika and Atanu did this time, with Olympic Gold Quest’s support. It was right before they were struck off the list of government-supported Target Olympic Podium Scheme athletes.
“When you’re around a Brady Ellison outside a conventional outdoor event, even his anecdotes can be instructive,” says Atanu, “Even if in a different format, these events have one-on-one matches. Outside the few World Cups, we are rarely thrown into match situations. “
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The event, which had over 3000 archers trooping in this year, has been in existence for over five decades. But it was the first time Deepika found herself at the tournament – a melting pot of emerging archers, scholarship-seekers, Olympic champions, leading equipment vendors strutting latest wares – and discovered a parallel universe. “The indoor event was freeing. It’s the kind of tournament we should participate in often, like most top archers around the world do. It was like an apple (fair) … No tension, no pressure, everyone’s there to shoot arrows and “That’s the sort of attitude we need to build. We’re always overthinking and sometimes taking on pressures that aren’t even supposed to be ours.”
The former world No 1 alludes to her recurring Olympic heartbreak. In Tokyo last year, she beat two-time Olympic silver medalist Ksenia Perova in a shoot-off before losing in the quarterfinals to top seed and eventual champion, Korea’s An San. Atanu too had an impressive win over London Olympic gold medalist Oh Jin Hyek, but fell in the pre-quarters to home hope Takaharu Furukawa.
India have never won an archery medal at the Olympics. “When you’re thinking we don’t have a single medal in history so we can’t mess this up, it’s just the wrong sort of pressure,” Deepika says. Anxiety can often trigger overthinking which in turn can paralyze on-field processes that occur to athletes naturally. “It’s not just about what people expect of you, but also what you want of yourself. I know I wasn’t good enough in Tokyo or I’d have a medal with me today. When you fail after you’ve told yourself ki yeh karna hi hai (that I have to do this), you begin to doubt everything you know. I began to wonder what I am even doing with myself anymore. “
Being married to someone who goes through the same wringer has worked as an emotional bonus for both Atanu and Deepika. “Between us, I think I was more devastated after Tokyo,” Deepika says, “I’m trying to get better at positive self-talk, goal-setting and worrying less.”
She’d need to do a lot of it in the days ahead. The selection trials for the Hangzhou Asian Games begin on Monday at SAI, Sonepat and they are likely to travel for a World Cup in Antalya in April. Atanu and Deepika did not find spots in the squad for the Asia Cup world ranking tournament later this month following their first-round elimination from the national ranking tournament in January. Those results were also cited for their exclusion from TOPs, a decision that appeared to be around the bend after their Tokyo showing.
Since the Birmingham Commonwealth Games program this time doesn’t feature archery, the Asian Games is likely to be at the front and center of its focus. Deepika’s only podium finish at the Continental Games was a bronze team in the 2010 edition. “In my early days, I was excited to just be able to go for competitions, nothing else mattered. As I turned older and I knew people were watching me and the pressure to win a medal grew,” she says, “If you let that get to you, you lose focus. Khud ko hi bhool jaate hai (lose sight of ourselves). “
At 27, Deepika jokes that it feels like she’s been in the public eye since forever. She was just 18 when she became world No. 1 in women’s recurve rankings. Last year she regained her top spot briefly after her hat-trick of gold medals at the World Cup in Paris and now sits a spot below. Over the past decade, Indian archery’s potential Olympic medal hope has been inextricably tied to her name. She’s had three chances and a possible fourth Games appearance is just two years away. The good thing is she knows where to start now: dissociate from past results and get on with business.
“I can’t run away,” she says, “I have to go back out there, compete, and win. Phir se khud ko ikattha kar rahe hai (I’m gathering myself again). “