Sandeep Singh: An Olympic shooting dream visualised at his frozen Siachen post - Hindustan Times
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Sandeep Singh: An Olympic shooting dream visualised at his frozen Siachen post

By, New Delhi
May 28, 2024 09:02 PM IST

The 28-year-old Armyman topped the 10m air rifle trials against far higher rated rivals to bag a Paris Games spot

Sandeep Singh fondly remembers the day he first got hold of an INSAS rifle. At the Indian army’s training ground in Fatehgarh, Uttar Pradesh eight years ago, the scrawny sardar held the weapon and took aim, producing a 2mm grouping at the practice target placed 300 metres away. A wave of bewilderment and disbelief swept through the trainees and instructors.

Sandeep Singh, now 28, the Naib Subedar attached to the Sikh Light Infantry has had a stop-start career so far.
Sandeep Singh, now 28, the Naib Subedar attached to the Sikh Light Infantry has had a stop-start career so far.

Sandeep’s career as a sports shooter thus began, on that dusty ground, on that nondescript day, with the instructors telling him he was a “complete natural who is born to shoot”.

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“I believe in God and destiny. How else could someone like me reach here?” he asks, a tinge of incredulity still evident.

Now 28, the Naib Subedar attached to the Sikh Light Infantry has had a stop-start career so far. But a dream run at the Olympic Selection Trials (OST) held in April-May — in New Delhi and Bhopal — which he topped in the 10m air rifle event means the soft-spoken marksman is within touching distance of a first Olympics. The final call though rests with the selection committee, with the squad announcement for Paris expected soon.

“I am confident of making the team. I hope NRAI honours its own policy,” he says. His anxiety stems from the discontent among his accomplished fellow shooters who he outscored at the trials. Sandeep edged Olympic quota winners Arjun Babuta and 2022 world champion Rudrankksh Patil – both started with an extra point as quota winners – to secure his qualification.

Sandeep’s stunning scores of 634.4 and 632.6 in the qualification rounds of the two competitions held in Delhi was followed by 631.6 and 628.3 in Bhopal. In shooting, the quota belongs to the country. And as per NRAI’s selection policy, the top two finishers at the trials in each event would go to the Olympics. With Sandeep on top and Babuta second, the chances of Patil and former world No.1 Divyansh Panwar of making it are all but over.

Patil wrote to NRAI staking claim for a Paris berth, citing Sandeep’s relative inexperience at international level and his own earlier good performances. Sandeep is philosophical: “I believe in God”.

He says: “In my defence, I can say that being the eldest of the lot, I am calmer and mature, traits that are handy in shooting. It’s not that I am a complete novice. I have enough experience competing in pressure situations.

“I approached the trials with an open mind. I had nothing to lose and I just tried to execute my training. I focussed on breathing and pulled the trigger; it is that simple. Not for a moment did I think about the person standing in the next lane. Given a chance, I will go to the Games with the same mindset."

For the man who has guarded India’s borders at the inhospitable Siachen Glacier, the pressure of firing pellets in the sanitised 10m range is pretty manageable. “Nothing can compare to that,” he says of the three months he spent in 2021 at the world’s highest battlefield. There was no enemy action, but among Sandeep’s big challenges at an altitude of 5,400m was breathing. With finger on the trigger, he would stand guard for six hours daily, staring at the icy wilderness.

“Oxygen is really low up there, so breathing becomes a task. I would stand there, thinking about my shooting career,” he says. That was when Sandeep, who was in the reserves for the 2021 Tokyo Games, had failed a dope test following which he was suspended for a year and was also dismissed from the Army Marksmanship Unit in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh.

“I kept thinking about my future. The mind kept wandering. Then, gradually I began to put my thoughts together. It is so serene and still there (Siachen) that you can ruminate all day,” he says. Eager to give competitive shooting another go, he requested his Commanding Officer (CO) to let him follow his dream.

“CO sir knew my potential and sent me back to Delhi where I started shooting again. I went to Mhow and shot relentlessly. Coming into the OSTs, I consistently shot between 630-640 and did a lot of match simulations. All of that came good.”

Born in Behbal Khurd village in Punjab’s Faridkot, Sandeep had a tough upbringing. His father, Baljinder Singh, is a labourer. As a youngster, Sandeep would accompany his father to boost the family’s meagre income.

“I have done everything, from lifting bricks at a construction site to doing masonry. Those were back-breaking days. The dream of an army job kept me going. We were so poor, sport was a luxury.” Sandeep’s elder brother is a motorcycle mechanic in the village and his younger brother is a student. “None of us had heard much about sports. I always looked at the army as my escape from that life,” says Sandeep, who is supported by the Reliance Foundation in areas of nutrition and psychology.

Having left his tough days behind, he is hopeful his first Olympics will help acquire the means to lift his family out of poverty. “It will be an honour to bring glory to the country. That’s what we are taught in the army,” he says. “Also, I want to give my father a happy retirement. A good show at the Olympics may help me do that.”

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