The brave-hearted Madhya Pradesh junior archers 'achieved the impossible' by winning four medals in the Nationals Championships after miraculously escaping the Shatabdi Express train inferno on their way to Dehradun, their head coach said on Monday.
With less than an hour to reach Dehradun on Saturday, the eight-member recurve men's and women's team experienced the horror of being chased by black thick smoke and fire as they jumped to safety to the adjacent bogey.
But they lost all their belongings, right from their equipment to original documents including Aadhaar Card and birth certificates after their coach C5 was charred near Kansrao.
Starting from scratch with a new set of equipment that arrived in the wee hours of Sunday, the archers without any pre-match day practice concluded their campaign with two silver and one bronze in the recurve category and a team silver in the compound category earlier.
Class X student Sonia Thakur, who won two silver medals in the ranking round, went one step up advancing into the Olympic round on Monday as she nearly bagged a third but only to go down to her Haryana rival in a tightly-contested bronze playoff that was decided in a tiebreaker.
"They have achieved something impossible. Miracles like this do happen in sport," MP head coach Richpal Singh said from Dehradun.
Singh, who had reached with the compound team ahead of the recurve archers, remembers Saturday's ordeal vividly when he first learnt about the horrific incident.
"They were slated to reach in Dehradun at 12.55pm and we were to go for practice after grabbing a quick bite. But there was no phone calls as I dropped a message in our WhatsApp group and learnt about the trauma."
"The first thing I asked them was 'Are you all safe?' After hearing that they all are safe, our first job was to boost their morale and ensure that they stay focus on the competition the next day."
With a combined support from the MP state administration and Archery Association of India, they managed to get a new set of equipment ordered from Patiala.
"We are told that the equipment would land around 2am so we made sure the archers got some rest before it arrives as they have a sleepless night in store in tuning them, something that takes hours."
So all the coaching staff and archers assembled in their hotel lobby at 2am and got on the job of setting them up that requires cutting and fetching the arrows. After that they rushed to the Survey Ground in the early hours of 6am to get some desperate practice, three hours before the competition.
"Just tuning them was not enough as for an archer it takes months' to have a finger tap set with the release. So to shoot and win medals with the new set of bows and arrows, with less than two hour's practice shows their mental resolve. It was something impossible," Singh said.
"All eyes were on us and everyone was asking about them during the competition. But the team held their focus firm. The showed a different kind of attitude," he added.
Son of a truck driver, Amit Kumar, who won a bronze in the individual ranking round before partnering Sonia Thakur for a silver in the mixed pair, in fact did not tell anyone in his family about the train incident.
"They would have panicked and would have made it difficult for me so I remained mum. But now I've told them that I've won two medals. They would have known about the incident by now," Amit said.
Class IX student Sonia, who finished with a silver in the individual ranking round before her double with Amit in the mixed pair, was horrified seeing her personal belongings went up in smoke.
"It was a devastating sight to see the bogey gutted in front of our eyes. But there was reassurance from coaches and family members who said 'life is more important'," Sonia recalled.
"We all got amazing support and the equipment arrived so there was no looking back for us. We had to live up to their expectations and it showed in our performances.
"The last few days have taught us one of the most important lessons of life: don't ever lose your focus," Sonia concluded.