India qualified a total of 15 shooters for the Tokyo Games. While nine of those 15 shooters are no longer in medal contention, six shooters still remain.
Of those six shooters, one name stands apart from the rest. That name is Rahi Sarnobat.
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A woman of significant firsts
Sarnobat was a prodigiously gifted shooter as a teenager, winning gold in the 25m pistol event at the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2008. She then built on that achievement by winning a gold and silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in the 25 pistol team and individual event respectively. She won her first World Cup medal at Fort Benning in 2011 and also went on to represent India at the London Olympics, where she finished 19th. She learned from that experience to win her maiden gold at a World Cup in Changwon in 2013 but then endured a slump over the next few years as she struggled with form and injuries. The medal in Changwon made her the first Indian pistol shooter to win gold at a World Cup.
With the likes of Heena Sidhu and Annu Raj Singh having edged ahead of her and teen phenom Manu Bhaker making a splash on the junior as well senior circuit, Sarnobat seemed like she might be left behind. She, however, dispelled any questions about her abilities by becoming the first Indian female shooter in history to win gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta-Palembang in 2018. Her performance in the final was particularly striking as she set an Asian Games record in a remarkably strong field.
What makes Rahi Sarnobat a favourite at the Olympics?
Only two women have medaled more often than Sarnobat at this event in the World Cup since the Rio Olympics. Sarnobat's three medals (two golds and one silver) are level with the fast-rising Veronika Major (two golds and one silver) and are only exceeded by Greece's Anna Korakaki (one gold and three bronzes) and China's Zhang Jingjing (two golds and two silvers), who've won four medals each.
Both those women are among the all-time great pistol shooters. Korakaki is the defending champion in the event at the Olympics, while Zhang set an Olympic record while topping the qualification round of this event at the Rio Olympics, where she finished fourth eventually. Despite those accomplishments, Zhang did not make the cut for the Chinese entries for Tokyo. So based on form over the current Olympic cycle, it is safe to say that Korakaki and Sarnobat will start as the two favourites tomorrow.
Sarnobat (five medals) is also very high on the all-time list of the most-successful women in the 25m pistol event at World Cups, at 14th. Of the 13 women ahead of her, only three will be in Tokyo: Maria Grozdeva, Nino Salukvadze and Gundegmaa Otryad. At 49, 52 and 43 respectively, Grozdeva, Saluvadze and Otryad's best years are possibly behind them and only Grozdeva has medaled at a World Cup over the last Olympic cycle in this event.
Why Tokyo might be her time to gain long overdue recognition
Even as plenty of other shooters have gained media attention over the years, Sarnobat has mostly maintained a low profile and lets her shooting do the talking. However, she has a strong claim to being India's greatest-ever female shooter and one of the country's best shooters of all time.
Her three individual World Cup gold medals are the joint-most by an Indian along with Jitu Rai and she's the only Indian to win three golds in one event at World Cups. Rai's golds came in the 10m air pistol and 50m pistol events. Her five individual World Cup medals are also the most by an Indian woman.
Beyond the numbers though, it's Sarnobat's prowess in finals that particularly stands out. While she can sometimes struggle in the qualification round, her record in finals is immaculate.
Sarnobat has made the final 11 times in the 25m pistol event in her senior career and gone on to win four golds, one silver and one bronze in those 11 finals. It is safe to say that Sarnobat enters this Olympics in the best from of her life as she's medaled at each of the two World Cups this year. While she won one gold and one bronze from her first six final appearances, she has won three golds and one silver from her last five finals. The only time she didn't medal in those five finals, she finished fourth.
Though most of India's best pedigreed shooters have failed to deliver at this Olympics, Sarnobat might finally get the long overdue recognition that her achievements have always deserved. For that though, she needs to add another significant first by becoming the first Indian female shooter to medal at the Olympics on Friday. If not, at 30, her best years might still just be ahead of her. She only needs to glance at Grozdeva, Saluvadze and Otryad for inspiration.