Asian Para Games: Teenage star Khandelwal aiming for the top

After successful World Championships debut, India's 16-year-old is in search of more medals in Hangzhou to inspire young athletes to join his sport 22 Oct 2023
Two athletes holding medals and a mascot plush toy
Rudransh Khandelwal (left) and his idol Manish Narwal are among the 15 Indian athletes competing at the Asian Para Games in Hangzhou
ⒸMary Barber
By Mary Barber | For World Shooting Para Sport

Indian teenager Rudransh Khandelwal stands side-on to the 10mm-wide target 50m away with his pistol in the fire-ready position. 

The outstretched arm of the right-handed shooter is ramrod straight as he prepares to release the trigger, concentration etched on his face. Hours of practice at aiming and steadying the gun with deep breathing all come down to this historic moment.

At just 16, the youngest competitor in the field takes his shot and then smiles broadly. Khandelwal has just won his first gold medal for India and broken a world record, as well as beaten the world’s finest shooters in the process, in the P4 - mixed 50m pistol SH1 with a score of 231.1.

His outstanding performance at the World Shooting Para Sport World Cup in Osijek, Croatia, was made even more impressive, as it was only his second international outing as a member of the national team. Two days later, at the tournament in July, he collected another gold medal in the P1 - men’s 10m air pistol SH1. He is now ranked third in the world in the P1 event.

When he lined up for the finals, the high school student did not appear intimidated by his formidable opponents. “I had not realised I was the youngest person,” says the athlete, who has shown maturity beyond his years. “But it does not matter in shooting what your age is; it is not a factor in your process or technique. 

“The only thing that matters when you are at the range is that you are giving your best shot and are focussed on your own shooting.”

From the considerable haul of medals he has now amassed, he has been giving his “best shot” at shooting ever since he won his first competition at just eight years of age. The sport is the ultimate test of accuracy, concentration and control.

“It has only been eight years since I started shooting, and I was delighted to be selected for the national team this year. I’m performing good, and doing my best in each competition, and I want to continue to do well in others, too,” he says.

Two events in Hangzhou

The teenage sensation proved his star quality again last month at the Lima 2023 World Shooting Para Sport Championships when he took home a silver in the P4 – mixed 50m pistol SH1. The youngest competitor in the championships was narrowly beaten by Azerbaijan’s Kamran Zeynalov in the final. 

He next competes at the Asia Para Games in Hangzhou, China, which start on Monday (23 October). Khandelwal competes in the P4 - mixed 50m pistol SH1 on opening day and in the P1 – men’s 10m air pistol SH1 on Tuesday (24). 

Shooting Para sport schedule and results from Hangzhou 2022 can be found here

At his first Asian Para Games, Khandelwal hopes to add more medals to his CV before he targets the ultimate prize in the sport at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. 

“I want to go to the Paralympics and win gold in the 50m,” said the athlete, who has already won a quota place for India. “It is my favourite event and I hope I will do my country proud on the day. I will do my best.”

Khandelwal’s meteoric rise in the sport started when his devoted parents suggested he give it a try following a visit to a local shooting range in Bharatpur, a city in the northern state of Rajasthan. He had spent many months at his nearby home recuperating after he lost his left leg in a blast, believed to be caused by fireworks, at a wedding ceremony in 2015.

“I did not go out for a long time, but then I started using a walker, and after six months, I got a prosthetic leg, and that was when my life became more normal,” he recalls after the accident.

But there were challenges: “I did not find shooting easy when I first started,” he admits. “I didn’t like it at all, but I started to go daily to the shooting range, and then eventually I won my first medal and brought it home, and I felt proud. 

“The family was very happy, and it also made me happy, so I continued, and it became a habit. I think the key to success is consistency. My coach and my parents told me there are always ups and downs, but you just have to keep going.”

Khandelwal lives with 10 members of his close-knit family, which include his father, a businessman who owns a garment store; his mother, who is a college lecturer; his older two sisters; his grandmother and cousins. 

“My family plays a very important role in my life; they are there for emotional support and financially. I love them all.”

And his neighbours and friends play a crucial role, too: “They have given me the support that I have needed. In fact, the whole neighbourhood has been supportive.” Last year, a parade was held in his hometown after he won a national title.

The residents have followed his progress ever since he won his first tournament, just a short while after he started in the sport. The young boy had been up against people of all ages at the event at a Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range. 

The late Dr Singh, a national clay pigeon trap and skeet champion, was the first Indian to compete at five Olympic Games. There are a number of ranges in his name across India.

Khandelwal’s surprising win at the age of eight did not go unnoticed: “It was in the local paper,” he says. “It was an open tournament, and I felt proud to win. I felt proud of my country, and my family was also happy.”

The medals soon began to build up as he won local, state, and national competitions, and now, for the first time this year, he has added international titles.

Role model to young athletes

As one of the world’s best pistol shooters who trains for up to seven hours a day with extra time in the gym five days a week, he also has to fit in his high school studies.

“I am now doing home school, which means I don’t go to school regularly, but I attend online lectures and have to go in to do my exams. I have to get up early to study for them. My mother is a lecturer in humanities, so she helps me.”

He aims to go on to university and eventually work in sports alongside his career in shooting. In his spare time, he enjoys reading novels and watching movies. One of his favourite actors is the award-winning Aamir Khan.

The teenager also likes to meet up with his friends: “I still have my childhood friends, who I used to play with before the accident, and they just treat me normally. If I win, they say, ‘That’s good’, and if I don’t, then they are still okay.”

And then there are his teammates. The Indian national shooting squad “is like a family”, he says. “Before every international match, there is a camp where we live, eat and practice together, and we share things with each other. If there are any problems, for example, we share them. 

“It is very important because we are at the top of the sport in our country, and if we can practice and compete against each other, then we can improve.”

 “We are a very supportive team, we are very proud of each other, particularly when one of us wins a medal. Our coaches and officials are also supportive,” he adds.

India is emerging as a powerhouse in Para sports. It was the biggest team at the Lima 2023 World Shooting Para Sport Championships, with 18 athletes. Along with their coaches, they were always out in force to cheer each other on.

They celebrated in the finals hall at Las Palmas Air Base in Peru’s capital when Khandelwal moved from the danger zone to overtake two top South Korean shooters, Jeongdu Jo and Jungnam Kim, to secure silver in the P4 – mixed 50m pistol SH1.

Among them was India’s Paralympic champion Manish Narwal, who secured gold in the P1 – men’s mixed 10m air pistol SH1. Khandelwal came in fifth in the event, but he was quick to congratulate his 21-year-old teammate: “He is my idol. We are not rivals but friends and brothers.” The two are among the 15-strong Indian shooting team in Hangzhou. 

But being the youngest at many competitions does have its downsides, the 16-year-old admits. “I have made lots of new friends through shooting, but sometimes I feel lonely, too, because there are not many people around my age.”

As a role model for young people, he is encouraging others of his age in India to get into shooting and other disability sports. “It is such an honour to hear that I am a role model, but I am just a normal person, going to practice and doing my best, and [importantly] doing my own shooting.

“I’m hoping some people of my age will come into the sport,” he says before offering a few words of advice. “I would just say to them that they will need patience, as you will improve with patience. 

“There will be ups and downs, but you will get through them at the right time. Time is the biggest thing. So, I would suggest to everyone, do not push too hard, but just keep going.” And as he has repeatedly proved since he first took up the sport as an eight-year-old, “persistence is the key.”