When shooter Swaroop Unhalkar approached coaches at the Dubhali Shooting Academy, Kolhapur, India, in 2009 with the desire to learn the sport, it was a learning experience for both the athlete and the experienced coaches.
Unhalkar, who was diagnosed with polio as a toddler, decided to take up shooting after trying his hands at athletics disciplines, javelin and shot put.
“Shooting attracted me as it gives you instant result, you take a shot, and the score is visible to you within a fraction of a second. The gun also attracted me as it symbolises power and precision,” says Unhalkar.
Coaches Ajit Patil and Yuvraj Salunke, who had trained Olympians Rahi Sarnobat and Tejaswini Sawant during their formative years, had never trained a shooting Para athlete before and it was a new experience for them too.
Both, the student and teachers had to adapt to the situation and thus started a journey that has taken Unhalkar to a shooting Para sport World Cup and has now secured a berth at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Unhalkar is among the six shooters from India who have qualified for the Games and will be participating in R1 men’s 10m air rifle standing (SH1).
“Taking up shooting was difficult for me initially. The shooting range was far away from my home and my family’s poor finances did not allow me to have my own weapon and a kit, which cost around INR 3 lakh (EUR 3,400). I had to request the coaches for a weapon, and they provided me an old rifle, more than 10 years old, which was shared by 4-5 shooters. Seeing my dedication and determination to learn shooting, they even helped me with pellets for practice,” recalls Unhalkar.
As it was a shared weapon, Unhalkar had to wait for his turn to use it.
With borrowed gun and tattered second-hand kit, Unhalkar, who discontinued his education after 12th grade and decided to take up sports, launched a journey that has changed his life and helped him support his family too.
He started participating in tournaments since 2012 and success soon followed as he become the first shooter from his state, Maharashtra, to win medals at national and qualify for international meets.
“Despite shooting with borrowed rifles, I did well and soon was selected for international competitions and was under the tutelage of Ajit Patil sir and Salunke till 2016 before moving to Pune to join the Gun for Glory academy set up by Olympic bronze medallist shooter Gagan Narang,” says Unhalkar.
In October 2019, at the World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) World Championships in Sydney, Unhalkar did enough to qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics.
Though he missed on a medal at the Al Ain 2021 World Cup in UAE in March, and finished fifth in 10m air rifle standing, Unhalkar is confident of giving his best at Tokyo.
“I was too tight and cold during competition at Al Ain as I was participating in a competition after such a long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I have worked hard during the lockdown, I could not come up with my best performance. However, I am confident of giving my 100 percent at the Paralympics. I am working hard and improving under the coaching of foreign experts,” says Unhalkar.
He wants to win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games to repay the faith expressed in him by his family and all his mentors.
“My family has made many sacrifices for me over the last many years. All my coaches, , the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) and JP Nautiyal sir, who is in charge of shooting at PCI, all have shown immense faith in me so far. I just want to repay them by doing my best in the Paralympic Games. I hope that the medal will land me a job that will help me to support my mother and younger brother,” says Unhalkar.