Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore brought home India’s first Olympic silver medal at Athens 2004 and paved the way for the nation to produce world-class shooters.
When India enjoys success at the Olympics, the whole nation rejoices.
Olympic athletes can suddenly be catapulted into the same nationwide appeal and affection held normally for a select band of cricket stars.
The army colonel, who served in Kargil during the 1999 war with Pakistan, made a gradual shift to sports shooting and saw his career culminate in a silver medal at Athens 2004 - India’s only Olympic medal at that edition.
The country had sent a contingent of 73 athletes, with 57 of them competing in individual sports as only the Indian hockey side played in a team sport.
It was Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, however, who came home the hero.
Rathore always had sports in his DNA. He played several of them as a kid and was later recognised as the best sportsman during his years at the Indian Military Academy. Shooting was not alien to Rathore. He had, after all, led a regiment in Kashmir.
But sport shooting was a different game; it was more to do with ‘precision’ rather than ‘target’ as he would later put it.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore first picked up the gun for sport purposes in 1998 when the Indian army decided to form a shooting team. It required intense concentration, discipline and a sense of determination - areas where his army training helped.
The 6-foot tall soldier hit his stride in a few years, winning gold medals at the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Clay Target Championships. He also clinched a bronze and won a silver medal at the World Shooting and Shotgun Championships.
He was in terrific form coming into the Athens 2004 Olympics as he had made it to the finals of every major championship in the past one and a half years.
Rathore trained on his own until January 2004 after which he decided it was time for some expert advice to help him win a medal.
He flew to Italy where he trained under former world champion Luca Marini and ex-Olympic champion, Russell Mark, firing close to 80 shots a day.
His base also allowed him to work closely with Mauro Perazzi, whose guns he would later use to win his Olympic silver at Athens.
In the months leading up to the Games, the army man prepared a precise calendar of the events he would participate in, the amount of time he would train and even the number of shots he should ideally fire in training every day.
If this level of meticulousness was not enough, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore would also call up his wife Gayatri, who he had only seen for four months in the past two years, to discuss possible strategies and scenarios.
The work he had put in was immense and it was now time for the reward to materialise.
India’s medal haul at Athens 2004 was a single silver medal for the army man in the double trap category but it was historic in many ways. It was the nation’s first individual silver - India had at best managed an individual bronze till then - and also its first Olympic medal in shooting.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s quest did not begin well as he shot 135 out of 200 in the preliminary round but was placed fifth and so went through. The then 28-year-old, nicknamed ‘Chilly’ by his mother - because she always found him calm and collected - came into his own in the final though.
He hit his targets often but UAE’s Shaikh Ahmed Almaktoum, a member of Dubai’s ruling family who had taken up shooting only at 34, shot an unassailable lead and won the gold to give his country its first-ever Olympic medal.
However, the pressure was still immense on Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as he was competing with three other shooters for the silver medal and needed to hit both his flying clay targets in his last attempt.
The colonel was deadly accurate with both his shots as he scored 179 out of 200 and raised his right arm in celebration.
Winning an Olympic medal is the proudest moment for any sportsperson, and for me, the pride was that I could do this for my country — bring the first-ever individual silver medal for India in Olympics.
But the real significance of his Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s 2004 Olympics feat would set in only much later.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s Olympic medal in 2004 proved to be the spark which inspired India to win multiple shooting medals in both of the following Olympic Games - Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Athens 2004 provided some much-needed Olympics experience to two Indian shooters who won Olympic medals in the future.
Abhinav Bindra, the most recognisable Indian shooter, advanced to the final of the 10m Air Rifle shooting but could only place seventh while compatriot Gagan Narang, a bronze medallist at London 2012 did not go through to the final.
Bindra, a gold medallist at Beijing 2008, attributed Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s medal at Athens as the inspiration for his feat.
“Rathore changed me. His silver ensured that gold medal became my possibility,” Bindra said.
Bindra, in turn, helped motivate Gagan Narang and Vijay Kumar for their bronze and silver respectively at London 2012, giving Indian shooting four Olympic medallists.
Since then, several Indian shooters have made their mark on the international stage with the likes of Jitu Rai, Heena Sidhu, Divyansh Singh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan climbing to world No. 1 in their respective categories.
In recent years, the pair of Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary have held world records while Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela have been consistent contenders in competitions.
More than a decade after Rathore’s historic achievement, Indian shooting will send its largest contingent to the Tokyo Olympics and the growth was made possible when Rathore's shots were fired at the Athens Games.