Exclusive: Archery siblings Dola and Rahul Banerjee share their journey
Over the past two decades, India has evolved from being a mere outsider to a major contender in the world of archery.
The journey, which began when Indian archer Limba Ram won individual silver at the Asian Championships in 1989 to go with the team gold, has seen many stars emerge over the years, and two of them hail from the same family.
Their careers are almost a mirror image of each other with golds at archery World Cups, medals at the Asian Games, Arjuna awards and Olympics appearances to boot.
The siblings reached the zenith at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, bagging a gold and bronze medal each – Dola won bronze in the individual event and gold in the team event while it was the other way round for Rahul.
However, all of this would not have been possible had elder sibling Dola Banerjee not won her debut junior tournament.
A gradual love for archery
For the vast majority of athletes, their passion for sport is a fuel that is quickly set alight. But for Dola Banerjee, her relationship with archery was a slow burning affair at the start.
Banerjee explains how she chanced upon the sport as a nine-year-old:
“I used to play in the evenings at an open ground near my house, which also was the base for the Baranagar (sports) club. There used to be a coach who taught archery in the open and he randomly asked my father to enrol me one day,” she said in a chat with the Olympic Channel.
The still and slow nature of the sport did not appeal to the hyperactive Dola – it was ‘boring’, to use her own words and the fact that the coach only asked her to observe the senior archers at work initially were all red flags for her.
The perception shift happened when the then nine-year-old tasted success. “Six months after I began, there was a state meet where I played for Bengal. I won bronze and that was I think that was when my interest started taking shape,” she revealed.
There was also the case of a conflict of interest – while her father wanted Dola to be an archer, her mother, who hailed from a family of musicians, wanted her to be a singer.
Dola and Rahul Banerjee’s cousin is the popular Bollywood singer Shaan, so there was a strong case to be made for it. She did train to be a classical singer well into her teens, but it took a backseat once Dola started travelling constantly.
Incidentally, the story is similar for younger sibling Rahul. “I obviously began archery because of didi but I was more interested in pursuing karate or becoming a pilot then,” he said.
“But then I won a medal at the state-level and I remember it being a big deal – my school principal felicitated me, there was a small article in a leading newspaper - and that was when archery became my thing.”
In-house idol, rival and coach
While siblings are generally involved in a constant game of one-upmanship, with the younger sibling inevitably playing catch up with the age difference, for Rahul Banerjee, Dola was the benchmark.
“All I ever wanted to do was match what she did,” stated Rahul. “When I began playing properly, didi had won many national medals, was part of the Indian team and was travelling to international tournaments. I wanted that life for myself.”
Theirs was a typical sibling relationship, where the elder one had a domineering role. “I did feel a sense of responsibility when Rahul was born, which is why I was a bit strict with him growing up. I think he was afraid of me,” Dola Banerjee chuckled.
And even after all these years, younger brother Rahul meekly concurs. “Yeah, it’s true, she used to scold me more than my parents did!” he exclaimed. “In fact, even my friends were scared of her, they used to not mess with me because they did not want to deal with didi.”
However, he is also thankful for the fact that he had a constant source of support while staying away from home for long periods. “Not many athletes are lucky enough to have a family member alongside during long travels,” he pointed out.
“From 2006 to 2013, I think both of us were playing for India, away from home at national camps and tournaments, and having Dola with me then helped me through it.”
The roles reversed in 2010, with Rahul taking over the role of inspirer. Dola Banerjee had suffered a back injury in late 2009 and had to quickly get back on her feet before the national camps began in February.
“I went to a doctor and he told me I had a slip disc, my L4 and L5 vertebrae were affected. He told me I had to have surgery,” revealed Dola.
Though she did not have to go under the knife, the then 30-year-old had to undergo an intense program where she lost eight kilos in a month.
She topped the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games, won gold and bronze there before winning another bronze at the Asian Games, a first for the women’s team. But the back injury flared up again after that tournament.
“I consulted a doctor in Delhi and though he recommended surgery, I was sceptical. He then suggested that I recover through acupuncture, which I did diligently but it took me out of action for four months,” she revealed.
During this period, the in-form women’s Indian archery team, sans Dola Banerjee, won silver at the Olympics qualifying tournament, thus confirming their place for the 2012 Olympics.
With the focus solely on the Games, Dola was not part of any of the national camps, did not play any tournaments in 2011 and found herself out of the team for the first time since her junior debut in 1996.
It was a particularly difficult period in her life. “I was not able to move at all, I stood still and shot my arrows, and I used to feel sorry for myself,” she reminisced.
It was then that Rahul and her parents played a key role in getting her back. “The belief they had in me when I didn’t myself was incredible. Their words were what helped me get out of bed and fight for my place back in the national team.”
Having not been part of the 2012 Olympics squad and out of national reckoning for nearly two years, Dola Banerjee announced her comeback in style at the senior nationals. She was clearly the class of the field and was up against protege Deepika Kumari in the final.
The duo dug deep to outdo each other. “I remember the final went to the tie-breaker and then she shot a 10, while I could only manage 9. Rahul was sitting in my dugout as my coach,” she remembered, her memory as sharp as the tip of her arrow.
Dola Banerjee may not have won the title but had proved herself worthy of still playing for the Indian archery team.
The Olympics experience
Dola Banerjee and Rahul Banerjee are one of the few Indian sibling duos to have played at the Olympics, though they could not compete together. Dola was a part of the 2004 and 2008 Olympics contingent while Rahul played in 2012.
“It was the first time that an Indian women’s team had qualified at Athens 2004. We did not do very well there because, at that time, there was not much international exposure in terms of World Cups which can somewhat simulate the pressures,” stated Dola.
“We were also overawed by the occasion, it was all just a breeze.” She was in better form in 2008, having become World Champion the year before at Dubai and the Indian women’s team was considered among the medal favourites. But one wrong shot derailed the campaign.
“We were up against hosts China in the quarter-finals. Bombayla (Devi) and I were in good form and young Pranitha (Vardineni) had impressed. Unfortunately, we shot a six and our opponents were good enough to capitalize on that,” she said.
Like most of their career, the circumstances were similar for Rahul Banerjee when he travelled to the 2012 Olympics. The years leading up to it (2008-2011), the Indian men’s team had won several medals at World Cups and a year prior to the Olympics, had risen to world no.1.
At the World Cup in 2011, an Olympic qualifying tournament in Ogden, USA, Rahul discovered that the airline had misplaced his equipment and he had to borrow some of his teammates’ and rivals’ bow and arrows to compete.
He eventually ended up second to book his place for London 2012 and a month before the event, the Indian men’s won a silver at the World Cup, making them one of the favourites for a medal.
“Of course, I talked to Dola and she told me that the Olympics is a different ballgame. You had to prepare differently and had to be mentally strong,” he revealed.
However, on reaching London, the entire Indian archery team, including the women’s team and the support staff, caught a bug and were down with viral fever. It was not the optimum condition to play at the biggest stage and the results showed.
“We had also underestimated how cold the UK weather could be. In Kolkata, we were training in 40-degree heat and the conditions there were completely different,” recalled Rahul Banerjee.
Misfortune had struck both of them, and prevented them from claiming the ultimate prize of an Olympic medal.
Giving back to the sport
While they could not fulfil their own dream, both Dola and Rahul Banerjee are grateful to archery for giving them a life they loved and want youngsters to experience the same feeling.
The project was more close to Dola, who did not have an optimum set-up while growing up. “I feel Rahul was lucky in a sense that he had all the facilities he could ask for, the funding and proper coaching at the Tata Archery Academy,” she said.
“I had to learn for myself, my father had to pitch in for the equipment and though he could not really afford much, helped me in every way he could. It took me six years to shoot the same scores that Rahul did in two.”
With that in mind, they began the ‘Dola and Rahul Banerjee Sports Foundation’ in 2015, identifying 32 young kids from various districts in West Bengal and training them to be the next big Indian archer.
“The idea came to us after the 2012 Olympics, but our active careers did not give us enough time to do it. So, after Dola retired in 2015, we decided to properly give it a go,” said Rahul Banerjee.
“We had earlier worked with kids in Andhra Pradesh and that experience helped us in setting this up. We hope to produce the next-gen, hopefully, a future Olympian.”
Rahul Banerjee, who recently became a father, is still hoping to make it to the Tokyo Olympics squad through the trials after things get back to normal and a medal for him would certainly be a shared success for both.
From inspiring a generation through their exploits to now being actively involved in their development, life has come a full circle for Dola and Rahul Banerjee.