Asian Games: On big-stage debut, gold-winning teenager Palak suggests she’s been around forever

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After 10 shots in the women’s 10m air pistol final, just before eliminations began, there was a moment that told what was to come. Palak Gulia, 17 and in his biggest senior individual international final yet, stood at one end of the range. With two shots remaining, he was the last shooter.

His seven opponents were all looking at him and waiting for him. He was focused on the target. Then shot 10.5 and 10.2, which moved him to second place behind compatriot Esha Singh.

After only a few minutes everyone looked at Polak again. Because this time he won the gold medal. And in sensational style, with an Asian Games record score, and 2 points from Esha to win silver. Esha, 18 and the eldest of the two, gave Palk a nudge as if to say “Enjoy the moment, smile for the camera!” And Palak forced a wide smile.

This is some way to announce yourself on the big stage. Although there is something to be said for playing the final in Hangzhou, nothing like the size of the stage or the ticking of the clock can outshine it.

That moment after the tenth shot seemed to send a message to his rivals. He took the lead after 12 shots, when first eliminated, and was just getting further and further ahead of the pack. From 0.3 points, two shots and 50 seconds later, 1.4 points. Then, three great shots later – 10.5. 10.5. 10.7 – His lead was a strong 2.6 and the gold medal was within touching distance.

Her bottom spots continued to vary – team gold winners China didn’t have a shooter in the top 4, and Esha and Pakistan’s Kishmala Talat scraped for the bronze medal. But Palak has kept his focus and his position at the top of the table.

Four shots later, it was confirmed – a sensational one-two for India in the women’s 10m air pistol. After the two Indians shared a beautiful moment, a warm hug, held hands and raised them to the crowd. The frame could have belonged to any two teenagers, but these were two champions.

Two days ago, Esha showed her talent by winning silver in women’s 25m pistol. Today, Palak displayed a different quality: his cool under pressure with an ice-cold vein. He took his own time to finish his shots, not rushing or letting the clock get to him, not even when all his competitors were finished. Even after the 20th shoot, when Sona was as good as she was, she took aim later than the others. It was a 9.9, but he could afford it with the lead he had.

This is not often seen in finals, where most shooters follow the same shot rhythm as each other. A shooter has 50 seconds to make two shots when the elimination series begins. Most finished their shots too quickly, but Palk used the full duration, already showing the complete poise and belief of the champion he was going to be.

He previously explained the trend, saying: “I have a weird habit of taking longer to focus and release shots in the early stages of a contest,” he told the Free Press Journal. “I’m new to target shooting so it’s a learning experience for me. Right now, I’m comfortable with the way I practice and compete. Maybe in the future, I can change my shooting technique.”

“Nerveless” is a word often associated with shooting but here this teenager was the epitome of it. Looking at his steady pistol hand, one would never guess that he had a breast implanted on his right shoulder late last year.

Talking about the recent history of Indian shooting, it is not uncommon for a teenager to shine at the highest level. Yet Palk stands out in this galaxy for several reasons.

Consider this: Palak had not competed internationally this year before the world championships last month. He did not make India’s squad for the 2023 ISSF World Cup but made the team based on his numbers in six national competitions in line with NRAI’s strict average-based selection policy.

In fact, his numbers in five of the last six outings have been good enough to put him ahead of shooters like Manu Bhaker, Ridham Sangwan and Yasswini Singh Deswal who are all experienced Indian internationals. At worlds, he was 40th in qualifying.

She won medals in the women’s and mixed team events at the Changwon World Cup in 2022, but has never shot in a senior individual ISSF World Cup final (she has silver in the 2022 Asian Airgun, a now-cancelled shoot-off final format).

The last Asian Games was the stage for Sourav Chaudhary, then making his senior India debut, to become a breakout teenage star – also, coincidentally, in the 10m air pistol. Palak accepts his mantle in a display so easy and confident that it suggests he’s been around for years.

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