She may be just eighteen years old but when she speaks, she does so with the maturity of someone twice her age, who has experienced the vagaries of life at every turn.
Mehuli Ghosh - silver medallist in 10m air rifle shooting at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games and recipient of a host of other laurels - is a flag bearer of the young band of sportspersons whose recent performances at the international level have forced the mass of India to discuss them, celebrate them, and give them the recognition that has long been due to sportspersons outside cricket.
Ghosh has won multiple medals at the national championships; a gold at the 2017 Asian Airgun Championship; a silver at the 2018 Buenos Aires Youth Olympics; two bronze medals at the 2018 ISSF World Cup in Guadalajara, Mexico; a gold at the 2019 InterShoot International Shooting Championship; and an individual silver and a team gold along with Elavenil Valarivalan and Shreya Agrawal at the ISSF Junior World Cup earlier this month.
A typical Bangali, who prefers her bhaat-daal-maach to any exotic meal, Mehuli has become a star in her own right following her recent success in almost all major international competitions, so much so that almost every media house in the country wants a slice of her. Does she ever get perturbed by these mounting expectations around her at such a tender age?
In a freewheeling chat with this writer at her Kolkata residence a few days ago, Mehuli bared her heart out and spoke about her journey so far, her come-back-from-behind victories in her brief but decorated career, the contribution of her coach and her family to her success, her hobbies and favourite ways of relaxing, how she successfully overcame a grim phase in her life a couple of years ago, and her goals ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
More than anything else, Mehuli shares and tries to sincerely emulate the vision of her coach Joydeep Karmakar - not only to be better at her sport, but to make a palpable and positive difference to the society at large.
Q: I can see so many trophies and medals in this room. From the CWG silver to the ISSF Junior World Cup medals, you have won so much over the past two years. Do you think it’s time you needed a bigger trophy cabinet?
Mehuli: (giggles) Maybe I do need a bigger one than this!
Q: Out of all the trophies and medals you’ve won so far, which is the closest to your heart?
Mehuli: If you ask me about my medals, I would say they are all equally special [to me]. Having said that, my CWG silver and the medals I won at the Youth Olympics and the Junior World Cup are closest to my heart.
Q: Tell me honestly, Mehuli. Since the time you won your first international gold in the 10m air rifle youth event at the Asian Airgun Championship in 2017 up to now, what is your own assessment about the progress you’ve made over the course of these two years?
Mehuli: I think I have progressed a lot. I am more experienced today than what I was in 2017, especially when it comes to handling match situations. Earlier, for example, when I first started off, I was new to the pressure that one faces at the international level. Gradually, as I played more international tournaments, I was exposed to such pressure situations on a more frequent basis and started growing in confidence once I started winning. But then I still have a lot to learn.
Q: Your coach, Joydeep Karmakar, is known to be a strict disciplinarian. When he first took you under his wing, did you feel scared of him?
Mehuli: Definitely. When I first joined his academy, I was in awe of him because I saw him as ‘the Joydeep Karmakar’ and not as my coach. Initially, I used to feel very scared to approach him and talk to him because it used to play on the back of my mind whether I would be right in asking him something, or if at all that question had any logic. But gradually, as I started spending more time with him, I got to know him really well, and I follow whatever instruction or advice he gives me with complete faith in him.
Q: There was a time when you had to travel 40 kilometres each side from Baidyabati to Kolkata to reach the academy. Did he ever scold you on account of being late to practice?
Mehuli: Yes, yes! There have been many such occasions (laughs). Since I used to travel by train, many a time it so happened that I couldn’t reach the academy on time due to a train delay, or because I couldn’t board an overcrowded train. If such things happened more than once a week, he would chide me and ask me to set off from home an hour earlier than usual. And you can’t really make any excuses for that.
Q: You’ve had a very hectic schedule of late, participating in various tournaments all through the year as well as appearing at the national level trials and attending so many training sessions. Post your Junior World Cup success, I am sure you are flooded with numerous requests for interviews. Now that you’re back in Kolkata for a few days, how are you unwinding yourself? Are you getting enough time to relax?
Mehuli: Actually, I landed in Kolkata only three days ago. I didn’t do anything for the first two days; [I] slept as much as possible. I still have a bit of jet lag. I resumed my practice yesterday because I’ll be again departing [from Kolkata] on 27th July. I don’t have much time left for the Masters event.
As far as my media engagements are concerned, Joydeep sir looks after those things. He generally doesn’t entertain any interview requests whenever a major tournament is close at hand. Being a sportsperson, there are certain things that you cannot always control. These things don’t bother me much. I have accepted them as part and parcel of my career. The sooner I get accustomed to such attention from the media, the better it will be for me. In a way, it’s good because it is very important to promote shooting.
Q: Any movie you’ve recently watched?
Mehuli: I haven’t found time to watch The Lion King as yet. I recently watched Annabelle Comes Home. I love watching action movies, so I couldn’t miss Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Q: Mehuli, let us now discuss your triumph at the InterShoot International Championship in Hague earlier this year, where you came back despite beginning the qualifying round with a dismal 3.4 to eventually clinch the gold medal. It was evidently an incredible show of nerves on your part. I want to ask you two things with respect to that win—what was your state of mind after that first shot, and how did you motivate yourself to come back in that fashion and eventually emerge triumphant?
Mehuli: The qualifying round was a big shock for me, but I knew I still had 50 more shots left. That was when I felt that I had to prove myself to me, show myself how strong I am. At that stage, it was impossible to imagine a podium finish, let alone a gold medal. But I was not willing to give up the fight and I knew that only if I fought hard, I could stay in the game. From that point onward, I needed to be perfect with every single shot.
Q: It was a cinematic moment…
Mehuli: Yes, you could say so. It was only when I had my last five shots left in the qualifying round did I come out and talk to Bibaswan Ganguly, my coach during that tournament. I didn’t come out after scoring 3.4 in my first series of 10 shots. I think I slightly lost my focus before going for my last 5 shots, so I came out for a discussion with my coach, knowing that I had to score 53.5 off the last five to qualify for the final. I accepted the challenge, went back and scored 53.8 off my last 5 shots.
And once I was there in the final, it was a whole new game for me. I said to myself at that stage that if I had to redeem myself after that 3.4, this is the time. And thankfully, everything went well for me in the final and I ended up winning gold!
Q: Not a lot of people are acquainted with the technical aspects of shooting sports. In sports such as cricket and football, coaches nowadays give simulation practice to their players by creating match situations during training sessions. Since shooting events often go down to tie-breakers, does your coach emphasize match simulations?
Mehuli: Yes, definitely. Joydeep sir arranges for such kinds of practices. In fact, when I was in Bhopal for a training camp prior to last year’s Youth Olympics, Joydeep sir was there with me for a couple of days.
At that time, I had a problem with the trigger of my rifle as a result of which the shots weren’t coming out well. Hence, I was forced to reload my gun before every shot. If such a situation arises in the qualification round of a big tournament, you can still manage because you get plenty of time to get the problem fixed.
But if you face that problem in the final, it can get very difficult because you get only 50 seconds for a single shot and before that you have to fire 5 shots within 250 seconds.
So, Joydeep sir created the 50 seconds simulation for me at the training camp and I had to load my rifle and take my aim within those stimulated 50 seconds, and just before I would pull the trigger, my coach would ask me to stop and put down my weapon, reload it and fire my shot again within the next 50 seconds. It was a good practice session which really came in handy in my Youth Olympics final.
Q: You’ve admitted in several interviews in the past how you wanted to improve on both the technical aspects of your game as well as on the mental front. Do you think you’re now much better equipped to handle the pressure of the finals of big international events? How much do you think have you been able to overcome the psychological hurdles?
Mehuli: I think I am much better exposed to the international circuit today than what I was two years ago. I spend a lot more time than before in analysing a particular match situation. I have a lot more clarity about my game now; my plans and strategies are clear. I know I will face many new challenges going forward. I just want to learn as I go along.
Q: Most sportspersons these days have large followings on social media. You, for example, have an official page on Facebook. Do you use it yourself? As a youngster, do you sometimes feel tempted to be more active on social media?
Mehuli: I don’t personally handle any of my social media pages or accounts anymore. It has been over a year now that I am completely detached from social media. Earlier, whenever I used to have free time, I would surf the net and spend time on Facebook and Instagram.
Given my busy schedule now, I hardly get any time to engage myself in those activities. Now I understand that those things are far less important for me than focussing on my own game. Rather than being curious about what others are doing, I think it is much more important for me to know what I am or what I should be doing.
Q: It is now well known that during the 2016 Rio Olympics, Pullela Gopichand had placed a lot of restrictions on PV Sindhu like she wasn’t allowed to eat chocolates and ice creams, and was asked to stay away from her phone for the entire duration of the Olympics. Does your coach impose such restrictions on you before big tournaments?
Mehuli: (chuckles) Initially, it was tough for me to abandon chocolates and ice creams, but ever since I took up shooting seriously, I pushed myself to avoid junk foods and cut down on the consumption of unhealthy food items. I began training my mind in such a way that even if anyone placed a plate full of chocolates and sweets right in front of me, I would not have them.
Then there are certain “cheat days” also like after the end of any event, if I see that I have a gap of some days before my next event, I ask Joydeep sir if I can have some of my favourite delicacies. If he says yes, I have them.
Q: Over the past two weeks or so, the news platforms of India have been abuzz with praises about Hima Das, Dutee Chand, you, Manu Bhaker and Mohammed Anas. Compare this to the situation five to six years ago, when sportspersons outside cricket didn’t get their fair share of limelight. Are these real encouraging signs for Indian Olympic sports, or do you still think this hype generated around non-cricket sports is ephemeral?
Mehuli: Things definitely are a lot better for non-cricket sports than before, but there is still a long way to go. You need to understand that non-cricket sportspersons are getting attention only when they are winning medals.
Suppose someone does well in national-level events, or, even for that matter, creates a new record. Does the media show equal interest in such achievements? I don’t think so. And if India happens to be playing international cricket around the same time, I don’t think non-cricket sports would be highlighted and written about that much.
I am looking forward to the day when Olympic sports will be given the same recognition and attention by the media as what is generally accorded to cricket.
Q: Whenever Mehuli Ghosh bags a medal at any international event or wins any laurel, everybody - starting from the Prime Minister of the country to Bollywood celebrities to ordinary sports enthusiasts - shower so much praise on her. Is it a dream come true for you?
Mehuli: Yes. It really feels nice to be complimented by such a wide range of people and also when you see people recognising you. When they view my victory as their own, I really consider myself privileged to be representing my country at the international level.
Q: Do you also sometimes feel scared thinking about what happens if you are not able to live up to these expectations?
Mehuli: I think every sportsperson goes through the phase at least once in his/her career when he/she has to deal with this “what if…?” question. But thanks to my coach, whenever I am confronted with such a situation, I talk to him on the phone and seek his counsel.
He tells me not to think about those expectations because I have a job at hand and that I am not here to fulfil others’ expectations.
So, if I do my job sincerely and with utmost passion, I know I will make my coach happy, and that would be enough for him. He always tells me to stick to my basics and focus on my game rather than thinking about the mounting expectations around me.
Q: Your academy, the Joydeep Karmakar Shooting Academy, is also doing quite well now. A few months ago, you and ten-year-old Abhinav Shaw won gold in the 10m air rifle mixed event at the Khelo India Youth Games. Do you think your academy will produce many prospective international level shooters in the next five to six years’ time?
Mehuli: Yes, definitely. Our academy is certainly the premier shooting academy in West Bengal at the moment. Even if you don’t count my medals, players of our academy have won five to six medals in various national level competitions over the past one year. I am sure within the next four to five years, our academy will produce more shooters who will win medals at the national championships and later on be chosen to represent India.
Q: There was a time when, after the 2012 London Olympics, your coach contemplated going over to Haryana because he wasn’t getting enough financial assistance from the West Bengal authorities. Have things improved - in terms of both finance as well as infrastructure - for shooters in West Bengal?
Mehuli: Things have certainly become a lot better ever since Joydeep sir set up his own academy. The infrastructure that we have here is top-class. As far as the other shooting ranges in West Bengal are concerned, I would say the Howrah Shooting Club and the Asansol Rifle Club have improved a lot, but there are still a lot of ranges that require considerable revamping.
I don’t know why not much has been done to improve the infrastructure of these places, but there’s still a lot of work left to be done.
Q: In many of your previous interviews, you spoke about the financial constraints you and your family members had to face during your formative years because of shooting being an expensive sport. How does it feel to have finally settled down in Kolkata? Is the financial aspect being taken care of now?
Mehuli: It’s indeed a relief to have this flat because the academy is not too far away and I don’t have to travel much. However, this is not my permanent dwelling place and I still have my permanent residence in Baidyabati. My sponsors are looking after all my needs and I am happy with the support I am getting from them.
My parents were a bit apprehensive when I took up shooting because, as you said, shooting is an expensive sport. But thanks to my sponsors, all my equipment costs are being taken care of, so my parents are naturally much more relieved in that respect.
Q: You’ve also spoken about the phase in your career when you plunged into depression. What kind of support did you get from your family members and your coach during that phase, and if you encounter a budding sportsperson who is suffering a similar problem in the future, how would you help him/her?
Mehuli: It was indeed a tough phase for me. I used to feel extremely demotivated and gloomy. At that stage, my family members and my coaches inspired me to dream big and they gradually pulled me out of depression.
They told me that they unconditionally loved me and believed in my abilities. My coaches really encouraged me to enjoy the sport and told me that within a year, I would be winning the national championship. And that is what eventually happened (smiles).
Q: What does your daily routine look like when you prepare yourself for any international event?
Mehuli: I wake up at 8:30 in the morning; get fresh and do my workout; after that I have my breakfast; listen to some music and spend some time with myself; have my lunch around 1 p.m. then take some rest in the afternoon; my practice usually begins from 4:30 pm. I come back home at 9-9:30 pm, then have my dinner and spend some time with my family before going to sleep around 11 pm.
Q: What upcoming tournaments are you focussing on, or do you plan to participate in?
Mehuli: At this stage of my career, each and every competition is very significant. But the most important events for me through the next one year will be all the international events, the Rio World Cup and the Asian Championships.
The last two events will determine selection for the 2020 Summer Olympics team. I am not sure what my current ranking is. I am not there in the team for the Rio World Cup, so I will be going there at my own cost.
These competitions plus the Masters event in Delhi are going to count for team selection for the Olympics.
Q: What do you make of the Indian shooting contingent that will be heading to Tokyo next year for the Olympics? We do hope that you make the cut for the team as well…
Mehuli: We'll travel [to Tokyo] with a strong team because in all major international competitions, including the World Cups of late you can see that India is ranked number one on the medals tally. It’s definitely a plus point and we are certainly buoyed by our recent form, but still everything would depend on how one performs on a particular day. So, anything can happen on the match day.Published 30 Jul 2019, 14:42 IST