With several big-ticket sporting events lined up in 2022, including the Asian and Commonwealth Games, we look at athletes for whom this could be a big year. We profiled wrestler Vinesh Phogat here, earlier. Next up, shooting sensation Manu Bhaker who is looking to bounce back from Olympic disappointment.
If you are willing to get past the rather rude title, Manu Bhaker has a reading suggestion for you. It’s the famously irreverent ‘The subtle art of not giving a f***’, a book that’s considered an antidote to the trend of otherwise pathologically positive self-help guides. “It reinforced a lot of what I’d already been thinking about,” she says.
The gist of the book according to author Mark Manson is that life’s struggles often give it more meaning. It’s that underlying philosophy that’s reflected in Bhaker’s very modest wish list for 2022.
This is surprising considering both the number of potential prizes on offer this year and the fact that her list of accomplishments isn’t nearly as much as one with her prodigious talent might expect to have. There are the four world cups, the Asian Games and of course the World Championships – which will be the first qualification event of the 2024 Olympic Games. Surely you might think, Bhaker, who was winless at the 2018 Asian Games and is coming off a very public struggle at last year Olympics in Tokyo would want a bit of hardware this season?
It’s not medals the 19-year-old craves. “My goal for the year is simply to stay happy,” she says. That happiness isn’t a superficial one. It isn’t to be found solely on the podium, in the adulation of fans or even the respect of her peers. She knows exactly where to find it. “Right now there’s nothing that makes me happy as much as shooting. As long as it keeps me happy I’ll keep shooting,” she says.
It’s a pattern of thinking that was reinforced last year.
Before she flew back to India, unheralded, after the Tokyo Olympics last year, the pistol shooter told her family she needed a break. Within a couple of days, the family packed their bags in their home village of Goria (in Haryana’s Jhajhhar district) and flew to the south of India for a vacation. You could understand perhaps why Bhaker wanted very little to do with shooting. By any stretch of imagination, the previous few months had been exhausting. “I was just tired of all the chaos,” she recalls.
Bhaker had gone into the Olympics as one of India’s most touted prospects. At 18, she had qualified in three different events. She was in the mix in a couple of those events and with four gold medals in five World Cups considered a near shoe in for a medal in the mixed team event. Things unraveled completely. The weeks before the Olympics were marred by factionalism in the Indian shooting camp. Even as she landed in Tokyo, Bhaker would learn of the death of a beloved pet. At the Olympics, Bhaker wouldn’t qualify for a final in any event. There was a mysterious weapon malfunction and a public, unceremonious falling out with the then junior national coach Jaspal Rana. If there was ever a time to hit the reset button, this was it.
Shooting can be a notoriously neurotic sport, filled with loneliness and heartbreak. Bhaker has the personal experience to vouch for it. So why willingly go back there?
Well that’s because she’d had the same question and answered it herself back when she was 17. “Every sportsperson will have these questions at some point in their life. And you need to find the answers to this question on your own. For me I got the answer after the Asian Games in 2018 where I finished outside the podium (in the 25m pistol event after setting a Games record in the qualifying round). At that moment, my heart was shattered. But after that I realized that this heartbreak is something I chose for myself,” she says.
Bhaker would remind herself of this post the Olympics as well. “There’s no guidebook you get at the start of your athletic career explaining how to deal with failure. But I don’t have any real regrets. I chose this life and by that I didn’t just chose the medals and fame but everything else that comes with it. I can’t complain about just the bad parts of it. This is a path I very willingly decided to walk on,” she says.
“I’ve done a lot of different sports in my life. I wanted to shoot because I love to shoot. Not because I wanted to impress someone. Not because I wanted to prove something to someone but because I love to do it. I went to the Olympics because I had the caliber to do it at the biggest stage,” she says.
The biggest stage, the Olympics, are where she’s had some of her biggest life lessons. “I think I’ve grown a lot during the Olympics. Tokyo really broadened my horizons to the diversity of people. There are so many cultures in the Olympics but there’s also such a diversity of behaviours within people as well. People around you change with how you are doing in life,” she says. “My main learning from last year is that life goes on no matter what. I’ve been lucky that overall there were far more people supporting me than those trying to pull me down,” she says.
What her experience in Tokyo has taught her though is simply to back her instincts a lot more. That emphasis on taking personal responsibility for decision making is another of the principles in Manson’s book.
So, just as it was Bhaker’s decision to take a break after the Games, it was also her call to return to training and compete at the Junior World Championships in Peru where she’d win four gold medals. “It was my last year of playing juniors so I knew I wouldn’t have another chance of playing that tournament. But more than that it was a competition that refreshed me,” she says.
While the Junior Worlds and subsequently the national championships allowed her to end 2021 on a winning note, the results earlier that year isn’t something that she would have had regrets either way. “That was probably the one thing I was the most certain about. I think I did everything that I could with the knowledge that I had then to prepare for the Olympics. When I look back, I didn’t make any excuse for anything. I was always disciplined at the range. I did whatever I could with the opportunities and the time I had,” she says.
It’s a mindset that Bhaker says she’s relieved to have. “After the Olympics people were thinking how disappointed I must have been. They thought I would have been moping for the rest of the year. But I had a lot of great moments last year. I was really happy to be training once again and then competing. I admit I made some mistakes which I didn’t realise at the time but I don’t think making mistakes is by itself a bad thing,” she says.
It’s with that same clear thinking that Bhaker came into the new year. It’s been put to the test once again, though. She’d come in prepared to take part in the selection trials for the next national camp, but those competitions in New Delhi have been postponed because of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. “If there’s something that I hope changes, it’s that the pandemic comes closer to an end and we don’t miss out on so many competitions. The one thing that I still haven’t got used to is not being able to compete regularly and training in small groups. It used to be a lot more fun when the shooting ranges would be full,” she says.
But for now Bhaker is happy simply to stay in her lane and do what makes her happy. “I was looking forward to the trials but it wasn’t the goal. The goal this year is simply to shoot. I just want to put in as much hard work as I can because that’s when I’m happiest. If it isn’t, then I’ll take a break without thinking about it. But as of now, I’m really happy,” she says.