Nine Malayali sportspersons went to Tokyo recently to participate in the Olympics. One returned with a medal.
But Kerala has unfinished business in Japan because a tenth man has only just started his Tokyo mission.
Earlier this month, P R Sreejesh became the second Malayali after another hockey player, Manuel Fredericks, to win an Olympic medal.
However, in a few weeks, Kerala could have a third medal in the bag -- a first-ever individual medal at the Olympic/Paralympic stage -- because that is what Thiruvananthapuram native Sidhartha Babu is hoping to achieve.
The ace Indian shooter is set to become the first from Kerala to compete in the Paralympic Games that begins in the Land of the Rising Sun on August 24.
While Kerala's Olympic athletes attracted all the attention, Sidhartha has flown under the radar.
In fact, there is nothing extraordinary about him at first glance.
His Facebook timeline is stacked with the canine cuteness of a Goldador named 'Crayon' and his WhatsApp bio -- 'O enlightenment, are you close' -- though philosophical, is probably apt considering he has a pre-God name.
But the cute dog posts and thoughtful punchlines on social media aside, Sidhartha has happily maintained a low profile.
He is determined to etch his name on the history books and Sidhartha's recent form suggests that he could make it happen.
Sidhartha will be taking part in the 50m rifle prone and 10m air rifle prone and the former is his pet event.
After securing his Paralympic qualification at the 2019 World Championship in Sydney, the engineering graduate bagged a bronze at the World Cup held in March 2021 at Al Ain, the UAE.
If you factor in his placing in the top-six in world rankings (50m rifle prone), he has a realistic chance of finishing on the podium in Tokyo.
Sidhartha realises that glory is in sight, yet he isn't perturbed. He reminds us that shooting is a sport of luck just as it is an exercise in patience and perseverance.
That said he is unwilling to settle for mediocrity. The mere feeling of participating in the Paralympics wouldn't satisfy his urge. "I have passed that phase," says Sidhartha. "I'm not going for a wild swing."
He wants to give it his best shot.
While his words are thoroughly reassuring, the tone is refined. "I have been preparing for this stage for the past four years," says Sidhartha rewinding the past.
It was 2017 and he had already won a few state and national titles, even defeating able-bodied shooters. As a consequence, a rare opportunity, to train under London Olympics gold medallist, Sergei Martynov, popped up. He pounced on it. "I never had a coach before. I was a self-taught shooter until then. You could say Martynov was my first proper coach."
The result of his training stint with the Olympic champion, in Belarus, was encouraging as he added a few more state and national medals, and more importantly, figured out that he could aim beyond the nationals.
The international exposure that followed helped enhance his repertoire, but it still needed a bit of fine-tuning.
Toward the end of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic spread its wings, he attended a training programme in Germany led by acclaimed shooting coaches Hainz Reinkemeier and Gabriele Buhlmann.
The German duo is revered in the shooting world for its meticulous approach. The two had helped Abhinav Bindra triumph in Beijing 2008, the only individual Olympic gold India had ever won prior to Neeraj Chopra's triumph in Tokyo.
"They can't do magic, but their whole attitude is based on how one can win a medal," said Sidhartha. He refers to them as solution-makers who "help to override difficult situations".
His biggest takeaway from the German stint was knowing that he was on the right track.
"When you have dedicated your life to the sport, you would have figured out most of the problems in your game. But when you do it alone without a coach you don't know if your solutions were the right one."
Choosing the right path
Sidhartha took a liking to shooting from a young age. "My parents were scared because I liked guns," tells the 42-year-old, his boyish charm still just as intact as it was when he used to loiter around a gun shop at Thampanoor in the state capital on a bicycle.
He remembers staging a hunger strike at home to get his first air rifle. He was 14 then. As he grew older he kept nurturing his passion for shooting along with an admiration for martial arts. He won a handful of national events in Karate and Kickboxing as a young man.
Then a motorcycle accident turned him paraplegic.
"I was bedridden for a year after my accident," Sidhartha opens up, "I had many realisations then; being alive was the most important thing."
He was determined and "decided to not do things that are of no value". Meditation and yoga became a routine.
He still had to channelise his energies and thus he picked up the rifle, again.
His base in martial arts proved vital at that moment because just as in karate, shooting demands repetition without losing focus. "Yoga and meditation help to shake away the nonsense in you".
Engineering his success
Even after he chose the sport of shooting as his calling, Sidhartha never shunned the engineer in him. He uses technical nous to improve his game.
He competes on a wheelchair that he built and has also made finer adjustments on his rifle for accuracy.
At the World Cup in Al Ain, he tried a prototype of the wheelchair he designed. Its parts were arranged from the Chala Market in Thiruvananthapuram. "That was like a high school project and a wheel gave way before the finals."
But for the Paralympics, he has built a proper one with the help of a sponsor. "My wheelchair has a new design. It gives the stability of a chair and moves like a wheelchair," said Sidhartha.
The groundwork is done, and Sidhartha will soon fly to Tokyo. Once there, he'll have cut off every distraction. "I have told Crayon to stay alive," he says, chuckling. He might also take a sabbatical from social media.
And to not lose focus in the run-up to the Games, Sidhartha has turned to a divine being for assistance.
"Like Buddha said, the pain you cannot evade, but the suffering can only come through mind, so I'll try to stop the mind from wandering," he says before wheeling away to practice.