Just a little over twenty-four hours, that’s what it took a young Indian archery team to jettison decades of disappointment and heartbreak. From 1931—when the World Archery Championships was launched—till 2021, India had won eleven medals: nine silver, two bronze and no gold. And in two glorious days at the 2023 Berlin World Archery Championships, India bagged three gold medals, and a bronze.
Ojas Deotale wrapped up India’s campaign with a perfect score of 150 which saw him clinch the gold in the men’s individual compound archery event on Saturday. A few hours earlier, 17-year-old Aditi Gopichand Swami had made a stunningly quick leap from teenage prodigy to world champion. But what had opened the floodgates was the Indian women’s compound team, comprising Swami, Jyothi Surekha Vennam and Parneet Kaur. Maintaining their lead from start to finish, the Indian trio defeated Mexico 235-229 in the final on Friday to win India’s first gold medal, in recurve or compound, at the World Championships.
“I have the medal with me but it still feels like a dream,” Vennam tells Lounge a few hours after the historic win. At the Championships, she knew the sting of disappointment better than most. The Indian had come into the 2023 Championships as a six-time medallist. In the previous edition, in 2021, she made it to three finals—women’s individual, mixed team and women’s team—and finished second best in each.
“It was always at the back of the mind,” says the 27-year-old. “Everyone was talking about how India made it to the final these many times but never won a gold in a senior World Championships. This time, we just wanted to take the gold, no matter what.”
Vennam’s experience proved the perfect foil to the pluck of her teenaged teammates, Swami and 18-year-old Kaur. The team finished second in qualifying and tore through the draw. In the semifinal, they came across Colombia, the defending champions and the country that had denied India gold in two of the past three Championships. Despite the rain and wind on the day, India pipped Colombia 220-216 on the last arrow to enter the final. This was only the second time that Vennam, Kaur and Swami were shooting together as a team. They had debuted at the Archery World Cup in Medellin, Colombia in June and won a bronze back then.
“They are three different types of athletes,” says coach Sergio Pagni, who joined the Indian compound team in December 2022. “Jyothi is the most confident, most experienced of the three. Managing her is easy, because she already knows the kind of trouble the field can give you. Aditi is very present. She is the youngest one but sometimes it seems like she was born to be on this stage. Parneet is the most emotional one. She put a lot of emotion during the shot and obviously like the people who put so much love, sometimes it hurts more. It is a very level team.”
Kaur, who took up archery after her father took her to watch a competition at NIS Patiala in 2015, joined the national camp only at the end of May and was quickly drafted into the team for the elite event. Competing in the World Cup in Colombia gave her a taste of the big stage, and in Berlin she was already thriving. “It was interesting to compete with some of the athletes I have been following since 2019,” says Kaur, an English literature student at the Punjab University.
“I have been watching Jyothi didi also since then, so teaming up with her and winning a medal with her has been amazing. It has helped me become more confident. The three of us are a little similar. We are very quiet and calm. We had a two-week camp in Berlin as well before the World Championships. We were staying together, we bonded well during that time. Aditi and I are roommates, we listen to music and watch movies together.”
A day after winning gold as a team, the Indians found themselves battling each other for glory. While Vennam eliminated Kaur in the quarter-final, in a surprise result Swami outgunned Vennam 149-145 in the semifinal. Vennam however, shook off the disappointment and shot a perfect 150 to win the bronze medal playoff.
A nerveless Swami, dubbed ‘stone cold Swami’, shot another 149 in the final to beat Mexico’s Andrea Becerra and win India’s first individual gold at the Championships. Only 17, the Indian became the youngest world champion in archery just a few weeks after she was crowned the Youth World Champion.
The daughter of a maths teacher, it was a precision sport like archery that had caught Swami’s attention when offered a smorgasbord of choices. “I was keen that Aditi take up a sport,” says her father Gopichand Swami, who moved the family to Satara city from a nearby village to give Aditi access to sports. “In 2016, I took her to the Shahu Stadium and showed her the sports they were offering. In one corner, some athletes were quietly practising archery. She said that’s the sport she wants to pursue. And she has diligently trained since that day. She would train even on holidays or festivals.”
While Swami trained relentlessly, her parents, despite the financial limitations, made sure she marches towards her goal. “She had put up a World Championship medal on her vision board about two years ago,” says Gopichand. “We didn’t have a lot of money and the compound bows are expensive, so we had to take loans to make sure she got the right equipment.”
While individual grit has been central to India’s performance in compound archery on the world stage for the past decade or so, there has also been a concerted effort from the Archery Association of India and the government. Recurve archery, which is part of the Olympics programme, has been the focus of attention in India. But now, with the possibility that compound archery could be introduced as a medal sport at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, India has started laying the groundwork.
The archers train at the SAI (Sports Authority of India) Academy in Sonepat, and have now been given state-of-the-art facilities. Another crucial piece in the puzzle was bringing in former World Cup champion Pagni as the chief coach.
“Since he has been an elite archer himself, he knows how to get to the top. That is definitely pushing our athletes.,” says Rishabh Yadav, who was part of the Indian men’s team that won a bronze at the World University Games. “We used to think we need to go to the gym every day to maintain the strength, he makes us do that on alternate days, thrice a week. Earlier, everyone used to train individually follow their own programmes. When the team works together, it gets stronger.”
Pagni himself said that he has built a training structure with the experience he has gained over the years. The holistic approach focuses on the physical, technical, mental, emotional training of the athletes. Given that it is such a nuanced, technical sport, equipment plays a role as well. And it was the Italian coach who suggested that Swami, who is short and lean, opt for a lighter bow.
“He knew that the lighter bow would be better for her build and that eventually worked out exceptionally well for her,” says Yadav. “Because of his experience, he could help her get that bow, set it right, tune it right to just excel. Him being there has helped a lot. But India has been doing well in compound archery for a while. Everyone is talking about it now because we won the gold.”
Gold has a different glow. And it may just be the breakthrough Indian archery has been looking for.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.