Indian shooter Vijay Kumar’s silver medal at the 2012 London Games was India’s first-ever Olympic medal in a pistol event.
Long before Vijay Kumar won his silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, India was already a recognised hub for sports shooting.
With Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore bagging silver at Athens 2004 and Abhinav Bindra bringing home an historic Olympic gold from Beijing in 2008, the platform was already set for Indians to shoot for the stars.
Moreover, Gagan Narang, who fell just short of a medal in Beijing, made amends by clinching the bronze medal in the individual 10m Air Rifle event. So, if anything, Vijay Kumar was under pressure to add to that list.
The shooter from Himachal Pradesh did just that, holding his nerves during an enticing 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event at the 2012 Games, to become a part of India’s most successful Olympics contingent in history.
Son of a former army man, Vijay Kumar’s association with sport of shooting began early. He was fascinated with guns from a young age but he only took it up as a serious sport once he joined the Indian Army himself in 2001.
Vijay Kumar was transferred to the Army Marksmanship Unit a couple of years later where he began training professionally under Russian coach Pavel Smirnov.
I consider myself very fortunate that I got a chance to pursue shooting during my time in the army and got their support to help me excel in the sport which got me to where I am today. - Vijay Kumar
Success followed soon. He won two gold medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and a bronze at the Asian Games later that year.
Vijay Kumar came second at the Asian Championship in 2007 and looked ready for his Olympics debut at Beijing 2008.
However, a bout with chicken pox put Vijay Kumar’s Olympics debut on hold.
“I couldn’t shoot for nearly two months and when I returned to the range, I lacked the fitness necessary. Missing out on the Olympics was difficult to digest,” he admitted.
After recovering, Indian shooter Vijay Kumar marked a strong comeback, winning silver at the ISSF World Shooting Championships in 2009.
At the 2010 Commonwealth Games, he won three gold medals, including both rapid fire and centre fire pistol singles events.
A bronze at the Asian Games and a silver at the 2011 ISSF World Shooting Championships, ensured Vijay Kumar went into the Olympic year in very good form.
As it turned out, he did make the Indian shooters’ squad for London 2012, but the toughest part was yet to come.
The 25m Pistol was Vijay Kumar’s pet event, with all his international accolades coming in that category. So, as anticipated, he didn’t quite leave a mark in the 10m Air Pistol event.
But that wasn’t why he was in London for.
The Indian shooter came into his own in the 25m, shooting 585 out of 600 in the preliminary phase to qualify for the six-member final rounds, placed fourth.
However, the score would count for nothing if he couldn’t perform in the final.
The International Sport Shooting Federation (ISSF) had changed the rules for that year to state that only the scores in the final stage would count towards the final medal tally, as opposed to adding the score from the prelims and final.
The change caught out Alexei Klimov, whose record-breaking 592 in the preliminary stage did him no favours. Kumar, however, held his nerve and reaped the benefits of the hard yards he had put in on the lead up to the Games.
I had trained for this moment for the past year and a half, ever since the rules changed. This was my strength and I knew I could deliver. - Vijay Kumar
The Indian shooter started well in the first round, but Cuba’s Leuris Pupo surged forward in the latter ones.
Klimov’s elimination after the sixth round confirmed Vijay Kumar a medal finish, but he was tied with Chinese shooter Ding Feng in second place with 24 points each.
In the nerve-wracking seventh round, Vijay Kumar scored a four compared to Feng’s three to secure the silver and headed into the final round trailing Pupo by two. With the Cuban scoring four in the decider, Kumar sealed his silver.
However, a maiden Olympic medal at his debut Games appearance marked the realisation of a lifelong dream. But his calm demeanour at the podium didn’t quite reflect what he had just achieved.
The only time he acknowledged his feat was at the medal ceremony and his first thought after it was to celebrate with family.
I have won so many medals before and this was missing from my collection. Olympic glory is the ultimate thing and I need to be back with my family.
Vijay Kumar's life after the medal has been typically understated as he was promoted to Subedar Major, a post he relinquished when he retired from the army in 2017 to pursue his studies.
He now has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and works as a DSP for the Himachal Pradesh police.
While Vijay Kumar may have chosen to tread a common path in later years, not many who tread it alongside him would boast of an Olympic medal and his legacy of winning the first pistol medal among Indian shooters will live long in memory.