Incheon: Jitu Rai could have been forgiven if his thoughts had wandered just that wee bit as the gleaming Asian Games gold medal he had just won in the men's 50m Air Pistol finals was being put around his neck by Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee.
Jitu Rai (left) is greeted by his coach after winning the 50m Air Pistol gold at the Asian Games in Incheon on Saturday. Pic/PTI
It has been a busy year and Rai has been filling up his cabinet with medals from around the world. He has reached six finals and won a medal in each of them, including three from World Cups, one from World Championships and a gold each from the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
The only medal missing from that incredible collection — all of which have come in the period since June this year — is an Olympic medal. In case someone has forgotten, Rai alone has confirmed his ticket to Rio for the 2016 Olympics via a quota place.
Going for glory in foreign lands is nothing new for the Rai family. While Rai serves the Army in India, three of his four brothers work in different countries elsewhere. Rai, born in a little-known Sankhuwa Sabha in Nepal, landed in India in 2006 and joined the 11th Gurkha Regiment. Since then India has been his home. In return he has won them a bunch of medals.
The medal strung his neck, Rai preferred not to waste time to get back to his room for today's event — the final one for him this season in men's 10m Air Pistol, where he briefly held World No 1 ranking in July. The simple and soft-spoken Rai said, "For me this is my biggest medal."
But why, were not World Cups and World Championships bigger? "Maybe, but I came to the Asian Games for the first time and with the Chinese and Koreans there was pressure here." Indeed, China has a strong pedigree, but Korea's Jin Jongoh, who was eliminated in the final and finished seventh, is a three time gold medallist in Olympic Games, World Championships, World Cup finals and Asian Championships.
He was also the winner, when Rai was second at the World Championships in Granada earlier this month. Sports psychologist, Vaibhav Agashe, who works with Rai, adds, "This has been a long season and this gold medal was all about physical endurance and some mental strength. He is the strongest shooter we have and he does cardio training which have strengthened him."
The Russian coach, Pavel Smirnov, who has mentored many of India's pistol stars, says, "He has been going on and on. After this, he should go on complete rest." For the present, Rai knows his job is not complete. A second gold, that in his favourite 10m Air Pistol will round off a season that has been a dream year.
Talking of Saturday's final, he said, "My start was not good and I was trailing at the time but as we came to the last shots, I put in a greater effort and raised my level of concentration and it helped."
Helped is indeed an understatement. In a crucible-like tense atmosphere, Rai, who was once close to elimination in the final, the closing stages showed how strong he has become. With the triple Olympic champion out and the Chinese contender, Wang Zhiwei pushed to bronze, only Vietnamese Nguyen Hoang Phuong stood between him and glory and the gap was 0.7 points.
Rai shot 9.6 and his rival managed only 8.7 and the lead had switched in the Indian's favour but only by 0.2. On the last shot to glory, Rai shot 8.4 but the Vietnamese crumbled to 5.8 , his worst of the day. Jitu and India were on the gold medal column in the medal's tally.
A few days ago he said, "I hope to maintain the momentum till Rio." He comes back for his final event of the year on Sunday and then he gets that well-earned rest. But after a break, it will be back to business.
Yes, you can blame it on Rio!
The number of medals shooter Jitu Rai has won on the trot in international competitions this year