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From rural obscurity to National champion: Meet Swapnil Kusale, India's 20-year old shooting prodigy

Last year, Swapnil Kusale stunned the Indian shooting circuit by defeating Olympic medalist Gagan Narang at the National Championship.

Kusale (Centre) defeated Olympic bronze medallist Gagan Narang at the 59th National Shooting Championship last year

Since Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s Olympic silver in 2004, shooting has become India’s primary medal garnering sport. Shooters such as Abhinav Bindra, Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang have added to the country’s Olympic delight, winning gold, silver and bronze medals respectively. However, the sport is often considered elitist and inaccessible due to the sheer cost involved in participating.

Unless one belongs to an organisation, which financially backs talent within the sport, it becomes extremely difficult to continue indulging in it. Narang had earlier told Sportskeeda, “The Army Marksmanship Unit, which was formed in 2003 has done wonders for the Army. The unit is dedicated to the sport of shooting. If you’re talented you get all the support needed for you to excel in the sport, which a civilian one does not enjoy and has to fend for himself, and also look for sponsors. Being in the AMU on does not need to focus on anything but the sport. It will be very difficult for one if he/she tried independently.”

That being said, a 20-year old shooter from Kambar wadi in Maharashtra has gone a long way in shedding shooting’s ‘elitist’ tag. Swapnil Kusale might not be a prominent name within India’s shooting hierarchy yet, but his exploits in the 2015 calendar year has raised several eyebrows.

The 59th Senior National Championship held at the Karni Singh Range, Tughlakabad saw Kusale defeat senior stalwarts such as Narang and Chain Singh, to win gold in the 50m prone 3 position. Two shots before the final scoring, Kusale was behind Singh and Narang, but he held his cool shooting a strong 10.8 and 10.4 to win the coveted title.

He also won bronze in the 50 m 3 position at the same event.

A closer look into Kusale’s career trajectory reveals a case of natural progression. Born to a village school teacher, his career in sport began in 2009. His father enrolled him into the Mahrashtra government’s primary sporting programme, Krida Prabhodini. He said, “Ever since I was young I was always into sports, my dad saw that and enrolled me for this programme. For one year, we went through physical fitness, after which we had to choose one sport. I chose shooting, and I was shifted to Nasik, where I began training. Since then shooting has become my life.”

Kusale after wining seven medals at the Asian Shooting Championship

By 2012, Kusale was a regular within the junior circuit participating in events at the continental circuit as well. Last year, he was crowned the Asian Junior Champion, after winning gold in the 50m rifle prone position. He added, “Prior to the Asian Championship, I participated at another Junior cup in Seoul, where I didn’t get my desired result. But that victory taught me a lot, it taught me how to come back from slumps, which is the most important thing for being a consistent shooter.”

Didn't have enough money to buy bullets, had a specific quota everyday: Kusale

However, Kusale’s meteoric rise has had several extrinsic speed bumps. He said, “The Krida Prabhodini programme helped me a lot, gave me free education, housing etc, you name it. But, after a point if you want to take it up seriously you need to spend money. My father took a loan from the bank so that he could help me reach the stage that I am. The cost of each bullet was around Rs 120 at that time, so I had to be very careful while shooting, because I couldn’t obviously afford that much. I didn’t have a lot of the equipment at that time, it was a bit of a restrictive setup.”

In 2013, his talent was recognised by a non-profit organisation known as Lakshya sports, who began to help him financially. After stellar junior level performances, Kusale landed a job with Railways, and is now self funding his Olympic dream.

He added, “My proudest moment was shooting against Gagan Narang, he has always been my hero growing up. To be shooting and competing with him is amazing, however, during the competition he is my equal. Whenever I meet him at events we discuss so many things, he has taught me so much. The most important thing that he has taught me is how to remain calm in between shots.”

Kusale during the National Championship

With two major titles already under his belt, Kusale has set his sights on Olympic qualification. He said, “If you see, among the top three from the Nationals, I am the only one who doesn’t have an Olympic slot.” The Asian Olympic quota shooting tournament to be held in Delhi next month, will be his final chance at attaining a spot. But, the Pune-based shooter is unfazed by the potentially daunting prospect.

He said, “I have confidence in my ability and technique. Me and my Coach, Deepali Deshpande are working hard to improve more. I don’t have the Olympic placing in mind will concentrate on getting a good score at the event.”

Whether he qualifies for Rio or not, only time will tell, however his performances so far have made sure that his idols are now his rivals.

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