Guwahati: A wooden pistol carved out by National Cadet Corps (NCC) cadets introduced rifle shooter Hriday Hazarika to the sport at the age of three in remote Dhalpur village, situated around 60 km from Lakhimpur district headquarters in Upper Assam.

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It has been an arduous journey of sacrifices and ups and downs, including bouts of Dengue and Covid-19, besides an injury-plagued 2022 before the 2018 Junior World Champion regrouped to win a silver in men’s 10m Air Rifle from the ISSF Shooting World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan. This was his first medal in the senior circuit, thus making him a firm favourite to represent the country at the Hangzhou Asian Games later this year.

It was a power-packed final at the World Cup, witnessing the likes of Chinese air rifle legend Yang Haoran, a former world champion and Tokyo Olympic gold medallist, Tokyo Olympic silver medallist Sheng Lihao, Hungarian ace Istvan Peni and seasoned Austrian Martin Strempfl, among others. But despite such tough competition, Hriday proved his worth when he toppled Sheng in the 21st shot to secure the top-two slot and set his date with eventual gold medallist Hungary’s Zalan Pekler, who shot 252.4 to the Assam shooter’s 251.9 for the title.

In a free-wheeling chat with EastMojo, the youngster, an ardent fan of India’s first Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, revisited the lowest phase of his career so far during the pandemic, and subsequently the comeback process before he found himself back in the national camp.

“This is my first major medal in any category in the last five years. It has been a tough journey since 2020 (due to Covid) and on top of that suffered a leg injury (fracture). And due to the nationwide lockdown, the team physios and trainers couldn’t monitor me. But had it not been for my personal coach Nishanta Bordoloi, I wouldn’t have been on my feet today. He had helped a lot during that phase,” he said.

“And once I started the recovery process, I was down with Covid and later with Dengue, which made it difficult to stage a comeback in 2021-22 due to which I found myself out of national reckoning. It took a while to recover from the injury, and then Covid,” he added. 

In 2021, the deadly second phase of the Covid-19 pandemic once again stalled sports activities that gradually started after the first phase. Most sportspersons in the country switched to makeshift arrangements to continue their training. And in Hriday’s case, his father Dr Sarat Hazarika, a registrar at the Madhabdev University, constructed a makeshift range in their native place to ensure that his son did not miss his targets.

“It was a crucial phase and even though the focus was on recovery and the comeback, I made attempts to imbibe the minutest of things (technical) in whatever tournaments I took part in and gradually kept pressing myself to whatever I have earned today (in the World Cup),” he said.

Tryst with pistols and the switch to rifle shooting

Hriday’s ­­love affair with pistols/rifles began as a three-year-old when a few of the NCC cadets under Sr Hazarika, then a second lieutenant in the NCC, carved out a wooden pistol for the little one.

What fuelled his interest further was a group of policemen from the local thana, situated just a stones-throw from their home in Dhalpur, used to frequent his place. Fascinated at the sight of the rifles that the cops carried, young Hriday would keep checking those out. And if that wasn’t enough, his father got him an army uniform, which the then three-year-old would wear every evening while taking a stroll with his dad.

“At the local fairs (mela) he would shoot the balloons he targeted. That was the starting point, where we found out his shooting acumen. And at that time, a shooting range was inaugurated at a college located about 25 km from our place. We decided to enrol him at the academy and initially, he started with pistol shooting before settling down in rifle shooting,” narrated his mother Iva Saikia, who sacrificed her well-settled job as a teacher at a government school in Dhalpur for the sake of her son’s career.

Iva, who decided to quit her job in 2016, fondly recollected the day when her 11-year-old son left for Guwahati in 2013 harbouring dreams of representing Assam, and eventually India at the highest level.

“Initially, he did not have a rifle of his own and went ahead with the one that was provided by his former academy for his first tournament, representing Assam. Even his uniform (a second-hand one) was provided by one of the officials of the Assam Rifle and Shooting Association (ARSA),” his mother said.

Admitted to a private school in the city, there was no looking back for the young gun, as he went from strength to strength to establish himself in the junior circuit.

“He performed exceedingly well at the prestigious GV Mavalankar tournament and in his first junior nationals at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in Faridabad, Hriday shot a near-perfect 595 out of 600. Analysing his game, a few experts had predicted a bright future for Hriday,” recalled Iva.

“On return, we ensured that he got a new uniform and a rifle, but some time later, he managed to attract a sponsor, who has been promoting him ever since,” she said with a sense of pride even as she remembers his childhood when he used to sleep hugging his rifle.

Competing against room partner

Hriday, who has one eye on making it to the Asian Games squad, is fully aware of the stiff competition from young Rudrankksh Patil going forward, especially in the run-up to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The 19-year-old from Thane had an excellent outing in 2022 when he became only the sixth Indian to win a World Championship title and more importantly, secured a quota for India for the Paris Games scheduled for July 26 to August 11 2024. This is so far India’s third quota in shooting for the Summer Games after trap shooter Bhowneesh Mendiratta and Swapnil Kusale (Rifle 3-position).

Interestingly, Hriday has been Rudrankksh’s room partner for the past three tournaments and the duo shares a healthy friendship despite the cut-throat competition. “We have shared rooms in the past three World Cups. We share a lot of experiences, and have a friendly competition.”

As far as the process of Olympic qualification is concerned, the most significant change in the new qualification process is that a country can win only one quota place in an event, in a championship. In the past, a country could win both its quota places in one championship.

And unlike in the past, the World Cups will not have any Olympic quota attached to them. Only World Championships and the continental championships will offer Olympic quotas in the current cycle.

“As you know, every country gets two quotas per event. So there’s no doubt that the competition is going to heat up in the coming days as all countries will be hoping to grab the quota places for Paris. In India too, it will be very stiff across all categories. Eventually, whoever wins the quota, it is not the athlete’s quota, it is the country’s quota, and whoever is at the peak form will get the nod,” said Hriday.

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Shooting at the Paris Olympics will have 15 events, as was the case in Tokyo, including three mixed events in air rifle, air pistol and skeet.

But for now, Hriday has his focus on making it to the squad for the Asian Games, and the World Cup silver has provided him with the right pedestal to dream big. 

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