Elavenil Valarivan's phone was buzzing the moment she switched it on, following her final in the 10m air rifle competition at the ISSF World Cup in Rio Di Janeiro a couple of days ago. It was a special moment, for the 20-year-old had become only the fifth Indian woman to have won a World Cup gold medal in the 33-year-old history of the sport. Valarivan says she would spend the following morning just answering congratulatory calls but the first one was the most special.
That call was from her mentor Gagan Narang. He had been tracking her event across the world in the lobby of New Delhi's Ashoka Hotel. On learning she had made it to the final, he had smiled. "She's going to medal in this one for sure," he had said. It was a near-perfect evening for Narang. The bronze-medal winner at the London Olympics was in Delhi to collect the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan award from the Indian president the following afternoon for his work in promoting the sport through the Gun for Glory foundation. A World Cup medal for Valarivan, one of the finest products of his system, would be the icing on that bit of personal success.
Of course, for all his pride in her achievement, the 37-year-old Narang would remind his young shooter that even higher goals needed to be set. In their conversation, he would remind her of her poor final shot -- a 9.6 that, while not stopping her from winning gold, caused her to fall short of a world record. "That was a hard miss, Ela. We could have got a world record also," Valarivan recalls him saying.
Ela, of course, is what Narang calls her ever since they first met at his academy in Ahmedabad five years ago. "He tried pronouncing my name a few times but he just found it easier to call me Ela instead," she says.
While Narang might have found it difficult to wrap his tongue around the Tamil name, shooting is a language in which the two have plenty more in common. Valarivan credits Narang, as the senior shooter, with helping her negotiate the transition from a promising junior shooter with four World Cup gold medals to the deeper waters of the senior division.
Her initiation had been a hard one. She had finished 14th in the qualification stage at the Asian Games last year and finished 30th in her first senior World Cup in New Delhi this year. After a 17th-place finish in the second World Cup in Beijing, Valarivan admits she was a bit short of ideas going into the Munich World Cup in May. That's where Narang stepped in. "He had been giving me advice even before the World Cup in New Delhi but Gagan sir decided he would come down to Munich and observe how I was shooting in the hall itself. He made a video recording too, which he used to suggest where I could improve," says Valarivan.
She didn't shoot too badly in Munich, but far more important than her fourth-place finish was the knowledge she gained out of the experience. Key was not rushing to take her shot. "I was hurrying too much. I wasn't waiting. Gagan sir also made some adjustments to the stock of my rifle and made the trigger mechanism a little more sensitive. All of that helped me out," says Valarivan.
For Narang, being able to help out the youngster is reward in itself. "When I was starting out as a shooter, there was nearly no knowledge in the sport in India. If you knew two things, you would go to someone who knew three and you would pool together what you knew. Then if you wanted to improve, you would go to someone who knew a bit more and you would learn from that. Now that I am at a certain level, I want to help out these youngsters as much as I can," he says.
Narang is still shooting competitively -- he will participate in the national trials next month -- but he has bigger ambitions from shooters like Valarivan. Despite her World Cup gold, there's no certainty that she could travel to the Tokyo Olympics, since the two Indian quotas have already been won. Narang, though, backs her talent. "I've won eight medals [one Olympic, one World Championships, one at the World Cup finals and five at the World Cup]. I hope Ela gets past that. I hope she wins an Olympic medal too, in this one or even the next," he says.