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Font of wisdom

Affectionately called `Grandpa', Prof. Sunny Thomas is a pillar of strength to Indian shooters


RIGHT THROUGH the Afro-Asian Games, he was a much sought after man, harried both by the shooting fraternity and the media.

The beeline for him was understandable, for, not only was he patient but an authority on the sport as well. From him could be got the pearls of wisdom a marksman might put to good use or open the eyes of observers.

A typical day at the University of Hyderabad shooting range began for Professor Sunny Thomas at 10 a.m., if not earlier.

Many of the fraternity found him a reassuring presence when they trained their sights on targets and thereby the medals, for they could fall back for a tip or a change in position or tactic to carry forward their cause.

Exemplifying this was Indian crack shot, Anjali Bhagwat. In the women's three prone rifle event, her scores in the kneeling event were working against her in her pursuit of a medal.

Prof. Thomas quietly called her during the break between two series and suggested a change in position. Sure enough, Anjali's score shot up by seven points in the next card.

At other times, he could sense the "flats" shooters were going through, meaning a stage when their skills were a little jaded and a break was the best remedy.

"Take it easy from now on," he was heard exhorting a shooter, who went on to clinch gold for India the next day.

During competition, his expression would be deadpan, as he peered at the targets through his telescopic lens, jotting down scores, which the computer only confirmed.

Nicknamed "grandpa," by shooters and officials alike, he's known to be genial and yet firm when necessary. "As a National coach, parents of women shooters have entrusted their children to my care and I should ensure nothing untoward happens," he justifies.

Equally protective is he about ensuring that his wards do not come under unnecessary pressure before competitions get underway.

Predictions are sought from him on India's prospects in the medal hunt. He promptly douses the curiosity with a dampening "no comment."

That is a leading question, says Prof. Thomas. The next query is on how many medals does he hope for and who will bring them. This not only puts pressure on those who carry the burden of hope but undermines the confidence of others, who do not figure in the coach's list.

After much persuasion, when he took over as National coach, the success rate of shooters shot up.

The medal tally went up to 400, of which 200 were gold. His training stints have spanned two Olympics, three Asiads, three Commonwealth Games, three world championships besides several World Cup competitions. Quite fittingly, he was honoured with the Dronacharya Award last year.

Many of these international outings have been marked by interesting anecdotes.

By vocation a professor of English at St. Stephen's College, Uzhavoor, (native place of former President of India, K.R. Narayanan) Prof. Thomas once got a letter from a student of his, settled in Switzerland.

The pupil wanted his teacher to come over and play with his new-born baby!

A trip to Switzerland to play with a baby was not exactly Prof. Thomas' idea of a holiday, but he wrote back that he would visit his student sometime.

That came soon enough. On landing at Zurich, the pedagogue called his pupil to tell him here he was, ready to play with his child.

The only hitch was that he had the seven-member Indian shooting team accompanying him. Imagine the student's surprise!

The coach and his wards were welcomed with a hearty meal at the student's home. A last minute clearance to the shooting team had left it stranded without much money. Accommodation anywhere in Europe can be frightfully expensive and our national squad was not exactly flush with funds.

The student came to the rescue of the financially down Indian squad and almost all their needs were taken care of when they were in Switzerland.

At the Hyderabad University campus, Prof. Thomas remarks, "My Hindi is awful." That does not stop news channels of the language rushing to him for comments on performances of Indian shooters, good or bad. The clarity of thought is very much in evidence although his dialogue delivery is a little halting.

A sense of humour and an easy familiarity have endeared him to all in the shooting circles. He is the first to be by the shooter's side after his or her event, congratulating or consoling and ready to give ear to their frustrations too.

Outside, the afternoon sun begins to descend. The day's competitions are at an end but only after the last shot is fired, does he leave the arena. Like most of his wards, a smile lines his face.

It has been a fruitful day and achievements are ample cushions to recline on. Tomorrow is still some way off and the cool evening air beckons for a night of well-earned rest.

A. JOSEPH ANTONY

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