Quite like the struggle to cope with lockdown in his homeland Australia “for a disease we know little about”, Russell Mark wasn’t prepared for what lay in store when Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore (then a Major) mounted the podium at Athens in 2004 for India’s first shooting medal at the Olympics. A trailblazer in his time with 34 international medals, which included gold and silver in double trap at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics respectively, the tough Aussie was taken aback in his role as coach by the surge of emotions as Rathore stood with a silver around his neck. The medal in double trap was a novelty alright, but the relief sweeping across Rathore’s weather-beaten face is listed by Mark as the highlight of his coaching stint with the former union sports minister.
Mark wasn’t aware of Rathore switching roles and but for the laugh he wasn’t surprised. “Who knows, he could even go on to become prime minister!” That is the intensity Mark was used to when he was mentoring Rathore. “The biggest challenge was to tell him to go home as there was nothing more to learn at the range. He was so streaked in his regimen, probably it was the Army background, and that made him a really tough competitor,” said Mark. The outpour of relief in Athens was an outlet for the pressure of expectation Rathore had placed on himself. The intensity of Rathore and Ronjan Sodhi, who was his next pupil, was a surprise for Mark after being on view to a bunch of “no good” Indian shooters in the eighties till the time Mansher Singh arrived on the scene. That, for Mark, changed the face of the sport in the country. “Chilly (Rathore’s nickname) got better as he had an example to follow and in turn opened the door to a lot of others like Ronjan.”
Mark, whose famous rivalry with teammate Michael Diamond helped the two get better as “they pushed each other to attain the level we reached”, said the hallmark of champions is they never shy away from competition. “It should be the quality not quantity of the field and to build a winning attitude, fundamentals need to be in place early on.” Mark, who won his first Olympic medal on his third attempt, was a tad critical of the approach of the current generation. “A lot of the young shooters find it difficult to swallow pride and tend to hide behind excuses after a setback, when it should be about taking responsibility for defeat.”
Over the years, the 56-year-old has kept adding to his “tremendous memories” of India, and a recent DNS test proved that a bit of the country is also in his genes — Mark’s great grandmother hailed from Delhi. Probably, that explains the urge to connect with this land from time to time. With a career graph that has seen him traverse across professions, from a real estate valuer, crack marksmen, radio commentator, author and now hotelier, Mark’s love for new challenges saw him engage with Ronjan after Rathore’s exploits in Athens.
If Rathore’s work ethic was impeccable, Mark felt Ronjan was technically better despite the “bad habits he picked up early on and had to work hard to get rid of them”. “How I wish I had started working with him a few years earlier but once Ronjan got the belief that he could won overseas, there was no stopping him and explained his exploits in 2010 and 2011. Had he made the double trap final in London 2012, who knows what could have happened,” he said.
With a tradition that is an envy of a lot of other nations, Mark believes Indian shotgun shooting is in safe hands. “Unlike the mistake Australia briefly made in my time by placing all the eggs in one basket, India has steered clear and invested in broad-basing talent.”
By Robin Bose