World at his fingertips at 18, Rudrankksh Patil wins 10m air rifle gold 

Rudrankksh Patil had had enough of travelling to shooting ranges to central and western suburbs of Mumbai, coolly carrying a rifle case on public transport, pretending it to be a guitar. And so, he decided it was time to go back to school; returning to the premises where he’d encountered the sport for the first time as a 13-year-old.

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

On Friday, on his World Championship debut, Patil shot an impressive total of 633.9 in qualification round. He then won the gold medal, becoming only the second Indian in rifle after Abhinav Bindra to do so. And, in the process, sealed a Paris Olympics quota. “At 18 years,” Patil is quick to remind.

India shooting 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 teenaged army of shooters and learnt by watching them shatter records and win medals – has shown he is the real deal, coaches say.

“One way to gauge the quality of a shooter,” national rifle coach Joydeep Karmakar says, “is by seeing how they perform at a World Championship. Rudrankksh shot a total in qualification that no India before him has. To come back from behind in the final to win the gold shows his strong mentality and the quota is icing on the cake. It’s the best an Indian has shot in recent times.”

Not bad for someone who quit the sport only a month after joining it. “I was bored,” Patil laughs. “Standing for two hours in strange positions… so boring!” Patil laughs. This was in 2015. Thirteen back then, Patil had accompanied his father Balasaheb, a police officer who was posted in Thane at the time, to the inauguration of a shooting range at a school.

The coach, Snehal Kadam, urged Patil Senior that his son, who was more interested in football, should try shooting. In the young boy’s head, none of it made sense. “At first, I thought they meant it’d be those military-style things, where you lie on the floor and shoot at things… then I thought it would be like paintball. I didn’t know shooting existed as a sport,” he tells The Indian Express from Cairo.

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

Patil at least had some reference now. Reluctantly he went to the range only to quit a month later. But on the insistence of his mother he returned. “The coach called my mom and said I could be good,” Patil says. “I played different sports but this was the first time a coach had said I could be good at something.”

Those words of encouragement were enough to get him back to the range. But a clueless Patil was still stumbling his way across – he’d not get the basics of handling a rifle, didn’t know how to assemble lanes and, this one time when he reached a final, he’d simply copy whatever a friend standing next to him did.

Somehow, within months, Patil was competing – and winning – at local and national-level school meets. It was at one of the national school meets that he met Ajit Patil, a Kolhapur-based coach who 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 coach him full-time,” Ajit says. “At the time, I was going through a financial crisis at my academy and was finding it difficult to keep it afloat. So, I took up this offer.”

Dimly lit range to World’s spotlight

The duo, after spending a few months at a range in the western suburbs that were an hour away from Thane, moved to the range at the school. Patil had followed enough matches on live-streams and scoured through dozens of pictures to get an idea of what a shooting range should look like. The one at the school came nowhere close. “It was a very basic facility. The targets were manual, lighting wasn’t up the mark,” Patil says. “So, we set-up a lane for ourselves by first installing new automatic targets and later, with the prize money from some tournaments, installing new lights.”

The Patils began spending most of their time at the range, reaching there at 5 in the morning and staying well past noon. “He had immersed himself into the sport. He was dominating national-level events so it showed he had the skills,” Balasaheb says. “But we were keen to see if he had the mental strength to dominate the same way outside India, when competing alongside the best international shooters.”

Those doubts were laid to rest on Friday. Patil, who quit the sport once even before seriously pursuing it and trained at a rundown facility in the basement of a school, is now a world champion.

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