From balloon-popping to Shooting WC bronze: 14-year-old Tilottama Sen is just getting started

Tilottama Sen in action at the Shooting World Cup in Cairo. Special Arrangement

This is not ideal.

It's your first ever senior Shooting World Cup and your rifle isn't working properly. You've experienced something like this before, in your first ever international meet, and it had tanked your competition then. A repeat is happening here, and you've already underperformed in the mixed-team event. An hour to go for your main event - the women's 10m air rifle - and it'd be understandable if it all became too much for you.

Especially considering that you're just 14 years old. Not ideal.

Unless you are Tilottama Sen.

A quick on-site adjustment later, Tilottama was shooting at her best... an hour or so later, she was standing on the podium. Senior debut. Bronze. Not bad, eh?

This was a week ago, and now she's back in Bengaluru, winding down. "I didn't go [to the World Cup in Cairo] with a lot of expectations," she says. "I just wanted to give my best."

"The cheek piece on the rifle had broken [in transit] and the screws in the butt piece (which go into the shoulder of the shooter) had come loose", she says. "I was training before [the event started], and I knew there was something wrong with my settings. I was not able to understand what I should change. Then my mixed match happened [that's when she identified and started fixing the problem]. Then we had another hour of training and that's when I finally set it."

Then she entered Zen mode. "There's nothing running in our mind while we shoot," she says. Just some "positive self-talk" in between shots. By the end, she finished just 0.1 away from a gold medal match.

"I think I managed it really well," she says with a smile. No false modesty. No arrogance. Just a statement of fact.


Tilottama started shooting during the lockdown, when she was eleven. Her father, Sujit wanted her to stop "wasting time" while playing mobile games (and watching cartoons) and figured this was the way to do it. Why shooting, though, you ask? Well, Sujit had done his college in Nagaland and had always been fascinated by the gun culture of the state.

"When he said shooting," says Tilottama with a big laugh, "I first thought that movie-wala shooting and I was like 'no way! I don't know how to act!"

She had only ever picked up any kind of gun once before, at a family event in her father's company where there had been a balloon-popping competition. Which she won, of course. But that was in jest, this would soon become anything but.

"In my first six months, I was still not serious about the sport. I used to go, I used to come back," she says with a shrug. "But then I got my first kit, then I moved onto a better [range] rifle. Slowly, slowly I saw the improvement."

But it really struck her when she won a match between different Bengaluru clubs. "That's when I took it seriously. I figured if good things are happening now and if I take it seriously... even better things could happen." Add to that a realization: "The one thing I love about shooting is that the more you work hard the better results you get. In the end, I'm only competing with myself, I only have to depend on myself."

At this point, Sujit decided to go all in. An employee at TechMahindra, he dug into his provident fund and retirement savings to invest in Tilottama's equipment. "Shooting is a costly game," he says, laughing at how he had initially thought this would just be a nice experience for his daughter.

He got her a rifle (Rs. 2.65 lakhs), a new kit (shoes and gloves included), and new pellets. Her scores shot up every time a new piece of the jigsaw was added. Daily training increased to six hours (eight if you include travelling). And soon she was knocking on some serious doors.

"In my first state [meet] in 2021, I shot a 396 (out of 400). Then a 398 in my pre-national south zone [meet]." The Karnataka association then conducted another state meet that same year. "That's where I went and shot 400/400," she says. "It was amazing.".

Then came 2022 and the nationals, selection trial 1, selection trial 2 and entry into the senior Indian team. Oh, and a silver in the National Games.

As spectacular as this rise has been, she's had her fair share of setbacks. At her first nationals (2021), she finished 63rd, the travel and the newness of it all unsettling her. At her first international tournament, a Junior World Cup, she suffered an equipment malfunction: a leak in the cylinder; and she finished 43rd. Each time, she learnt a lesson and plowed on.

Most of her short career until now has been built on the back of this ability to learn by herself. "I don't have a coach in Bengaluru. I trained alone and I still train alone," she says. "Only when I go to the Indian team, we have national coaches, foreign coaches. They help me out a lot."

So how did she do it before the national camp? "I used to watch my seniors' videos. I have seen the videos of all the Indian team players from 2017-19. In competitions, I sat behind them and watched."

In the middle of this incredible journey, the Reliance Foundation came calling. This has eased the heavy stress on the Sen family resources for now. They say a new secondary rifle is on its way, sponsored by them [Tilottama says she was the only one in the senior team without a replacement gun, in Cairo].

They have also helped in other ways - like improving her breathing technique. "Initially, when my heart rate increased, I used to hold my breath, but then they said doing that makes your heart rate increase even more," she says.

It's these small things that go a long way, and that's where the experts at the Foundation and the psychologists and experienced coaches at the national camp come into play. Diet and exercise are now done as prescribed by the national team and so is the training regimen.

You'd probably be wondering now, as any self-respecting Indian would, what about her studies? "Whenever I get time, I open my phone and study, but it's quite difficult to manage both," she says, before adding, "Right now my priority is shooting... studies are happening, but not that much." Her parents share a resigned smile at this; they are 100% behind their daughter's decision.

And so, for now, it's a month's 'rest' before the heavy competitions kick in: the Bhopal World Cup, the World Championships in Baku (where Olympic quota places are available), and later the Asian Games in September. "And the ultimate aim," Tilottama says with a laugh, "the Paris Olympics, of course."