Asian Games: On big-stage debut, gold-winning teenager Palak suggests she's been around forever

Palak Gulia celebrates winning gold in the women’s 10m air pistol final at the Hangzhou Asian Games on Friday. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

After 10 shots in the women's 10m air pistol final, right before the eliminations were to start, there was a moment that told of what was to come. Palak Gulia, 17 and in her biggest major senior individual international final yet, was standing at one end of the range. With two shots left, she was the last shooter to finish.

Her seven opponents were all looking in her direction, seemingly waiting for her. She focused on the target. Then shot 10.5. Readjusted her pistol and shooting glasses, shuffled a bit, put her hand in her pocket, and took aim again. A 10.2, which moved her up to second, behind compatriot Esha Singh

Only a few minutes later, everyone was looking at Palak again. This time because she had won the gold medal. And in sensational style, with an Asian Games record score, and by 2 points from Esha in silver.

That's some way to announce yourself on the big stage. If the final in Hangzhou is anything go by, though, neither the size of the stage nor the ticking of the clock fazes her.

That moment after the tenth shot seemed to galvanise her - and maybe send a message to her rivals. She took the lead after 12 shots, when the first elimination was done, and just kept moving more and more ahead of the pack. From 0.3 points to, two shots and 50 seconds later, 1.4 points. Then, three superb shots later - 10.5. 10.5. 10.7 - her lead was a formidable 2.6 and the gold medal was within touching distance.

The spots below her kept changing - team gold winners China didn't have a shooter in the top 4, and Esha and Pakistan's Kishmala Talat scrapped for the bronze medal spot. But Palak kept her focus and her position at the top of the table.

Four shots later, it was confirmed - a sensational one-two for India in women's 10m air pistol. The two Indians shared a lovely moment after, awarm hug, holding hands and lifting them to the crowd. Esha, aged 18 and the senior among the two, nudged Palak as if to say "savour the moment, smile for the cameras!" and Palak obliged with a wide grin. The frame could have been of any two teenagers, but these were two champions.

Esha had revealed her quality two days ago when she won silver in the women's 25m pistol. Today, Palak displayed a different quality: ice-cold veins with her calm under extreme pressure.

She took her own time to finish her shots, not rushing or letting the clock get to her, not even when all her competitors had finished. Even after the 20th shoot, when the gold was as good as hers, she took aim later than others. It was a 9.9, but with the lead she had built, she could afford it.

This is not often seen in finals, where most shooters follow a rhythm of shots similar to each other. A shooter has 50 seconds to take two shots once the elimination series begins. Most finish their shots much quicker, but Palak used the complete duration, already showing the complete serenity and belief of the champion she was about to become.

She had earlier explained the tendency, saying: "I have a peculiar habit of taking more time to focus and release the shots in the early stages of the competition. I am new to target shooting so it is a learning experience for me. Right now, I am comfortable with how I practice and compete. Maybe in the future, I might change my shooting technique."

The urge to do thing in her own time, turns out, comes from her awareness of the sport despite not having been a competitive shooter for long.

"Since our sport is a psychological sport, two days before the match we prepare an entire routine, we follow that routine till the match. Sleep is very important in our sport, we need eight hours of sleep. It plays a vital role. Another thing is do not rush, take it slow. Even if you are walking, do not rush, take it slow because you need to keep your heart beat calm. You need to be calm whatever you do. We have breathing sessions two or three times a week. Mental health is very important in shooting," she was quoted as saying by PTI after her final.

"Nerveless" is a term often associated with shooting but here was this teenager being the personification of it. Looking at her steady pistol hand, one could never guess that she'd suffered a niggle in her right shoulder late last year.

When it comes to the recent history of Indian shooting, a teenager shining at the highest level is not uncommon. Yet Palak stands out in this galaxy for several reasons.

Consider this: Palak had not competed internationally this year before the World Championship last month. She hadn't made the India squad for any of the ISSF World Cups in 2023 but made this team purely based on her numbers in six national competitions, in line with NRAI's strict average-based selection policy.

In fact, her numbers in five of the last six outings were good enough for her to be picked ahead of shooters like Manu Bhaker, Rhythm Sangwan and Yashaswini Singh Deswal, all experienced India internationals. At the Worlds, she was 40th in qualification.

The teen, from Jhajjar district in Haryana, started shooting in 2019 as just another extra-curricular activity in school. She dabbled in athletics and swimming too, but those were all for a break from academics. An hour of shooting in the morning was all she did. It was only after the COVID-19 pandemic that she started taking up the sport seriously. That's only the last two years.

She won medals in the women's and mixed team events at the Changwon World Cup in 2022, but she has never shot in a senior individual ISSF World Cup final nor any tournament with this level of spotlight on her. (She has a silver in Asian Airgun Championsip in 2022, in the now discarded shoot-off finals format).

The last Asian Games was the stage for Saurabh Chaudhary, then making his senior India debut, to be the breakout teenage star - also, coincidentally, in the 10m air pistol. Palak has taken on his mantle, in a display so easy and confident that suggested she'd been around for years.