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Know your Indian Olympian: Jitu Rai

Despite growing up in a humble background, Jitu Rai's incredible story could add yet another glorious chapter in the form of a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Jitu Rai
Jitu Rai is a serious medal prospect for the 2016 Rio Olympics

The stage was set at the 2014 ISSF World Cup in Munich. India had sent a strong contingent for the tournament. While the expectations were centred on the likes of more high-profile and experienced shooters, a reticent young man of Nepalese origin grabbed the headlines by winning 3 medals in the competition. It was the first time an Indian shooter had won multiple medals in the World Cup.

Upon sealing the gold medal in the 10m air pistol event, a humble Jitu Rai had merely enthused, “I have not changed anything in my equipment or in my shooting technique. I am still training hard as always. I don't know what happened.”

It was not a surprise for those who were aware of Rai’s tribulations with life. All of 5 feet and 4 inches, he spent his formative years by cultivating paddy, potatoes and corn on his family farm in an obscure village near Sittalpati-8 which is located within the Sankhuwa Sabha district of eastern Nepal. 

His elder siblings were all working menial jobs in random foreign countries and a young Rai resided with his parents in an agricultural family. Maybe passing his time in the farmlands brought a wider sense of perspective onto him and growing crops resulted in him cultivating strong ethical values.

After his father’s unfortunate death, Rai decided to move to India and joined the Gorkha regiment. Gradually, he got promoted to the position of Naib-Subedar. His affinity for shooting began on a strange note.

During his early training period at the Indian Army base in Lucknow, the shooting drills were accompanied with immediate angst. Eventually, after getting accustomed to the practice, Rai found out that he could make a career out of it. 

When he started attracting attention in various events within the Army, an impressed officer directed him to the acclaimed Army Marksman Unit in Mhow. At the unit, he had to endure rejection twice after being sent back from the camp on account of poor performance. After recapturing his form in the domestic events, Rai returned back into the fold.

Storming into the limelight

With his record-breaking performances in ISSF World Cup at Munich, Rai transcended from an unknown name to become the premier marksman in the country. He quickly rose to be ranked Number 1 in the ISSF World Pistol Rankings.

He continued scaling new peaks by winning the gold medal in both Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. The media began to heap adulation on him and soon the rewards followed. Recognizing his achievements, he was awarded 50 lakh rupees by the Uttar Pradesh government.

Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh stated, “Through his dedication, hard work and talent, Rai has put up a good show in the Asian Games and earned laurels for the country and state where he honed his skills for a long time.”

However, 2015 did not turn out be as he would have expected. He could only manage a bronze at the World Cup in Changwon. Despite meeting his high standards, Rai was not troubled. The unflappable Indian with an enviable track record of raising his game in important events, shifted his attention to sharpening his technique.  

Looking back at his career so far, the ever-optimistic Rai felt, “A few years back, I wouldn’t have thought that I could achieve so much. I owe a lot to the Army. If it was not for them, I would have either been in Britain or growing potatoes in Nepal.” Adding that his family had not come to terms with his accomplishments, Rai revealed, “People in my village didn’t even know what a shooting World Cup was.”

After qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016, Jitu Rai has remained a promising medal contender for his country. The Arjuna awardee assured, “I have been dealing with pressure well, I feel. But, you can always improve. We have to think about the Olympics as any other shooting competition. After all, we will face the same shooters against whom we compete for rest of the year. Olympics, of course, are big but we can’t be intimidated by it.”

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