Being a gymnast isn’t for the faint-hearted; in India it’s not even for the fearless. For the majority of Indians, gymnastics is primarily something they watch on TV every four years.
Being a gymnast isn’t for the faint-hearted; in India it’s not even for the fearless. For the majority of Indians, gymnastics is primarily something they watch on TV every four years. They owe their faint acquaintance with the sport to the incredible routines of Chinese, American and Eastern European gymnasts on the grandest stage of all — the Olympics. How many of us can claim to know children in our neighbourhood who take training in gymnastics If the second most populous country in the world is a little more conversant with balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars and vault today, the reason could well be Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics in May. That Dipa realised her Olympic dream at Rio de Janeiro, where the qualifiers were held, was highly symbolic.
Twitter was afire with congratulatory messages for Dipa from Sachin Tendulkar to Shah Rukh Khan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Facebook was flooded with details about her achievement. We are now sure that Produnova isn’t the name of some Russian cosmonaut and we also know it is one of the toughest routines in vault involving two front somersaults named after a gymnast from the same country. By becoming the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics in gymnastics Dipa straightaway secured a place alongside pioneers such as P.T. Usha, Sania Mirza, M.C. Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal.
Bishweshwar Nandi, Dipa’s coach, said he and his charge were overwhelmed by the country’s response. “Ever since we arrived in New Delhi after a long flight from Rio, we haven’t been able to rest for a few minutes with so many engagements packed in for the day. We never expected that her achievement would create such a big impact. I’m delighted Dipa is the toast of the country because nothing gives her more joy than performing for India. She is an inspiration for children in our country,” he added.
According to the coach, who has been guiding Dipa from the beginning of her career, the gymnast took up the sport for fun. “I would be lying if I said I saw a spark in her when she was six years old. But I realised that the girl had something special in her after a few years of training,” he said.
Dipa said the turning point of her career was winning a medal at a junior national event in 2007. “Until then I wasn’t very serious about gymnastics. But the medal changed my perspective. Another important moment of my career was watching Ashish Kumar win a bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. He was the first Indian Commonwealth Games medallist and I observed the buzz his achievement created at close quarters as a member of the Indian contingent. I wanted to be ready to create history when my time came,” she added.
Her time came in the next Commonwealth Games. The crowd at Glasgow in 2014 was fascinated by the sight of an Indian woman gymnast. But Dipa proved that she wasn’t merely a novelty. She vaulted her way into the history books by winning a bronze medal. By the time the competition moved to the final stage the same crowd had been won over by Dipa as it started chanting “Produnova, Produnova” during her run-up for the vault. Never in her wildest imagination would the Russian pioneer have imagined that an Indian would master a routine that bears her name.
After narrowly missing a medal at the Asian Games in 2014, Dipa clinched bronze at the Asian championship the next year. She came agonisingly close to sealing a place in the Rio Olympics at the 2015 world championship where she broke new ground by becoming the first Indian to enter the final. Dipa, whose greatest asset is her insatiable hunger, finished fifth, which wasn’t enough for a place at the Rio Games. She knew a fantastic opportunity had been lost but the thought of giving up never crossed her mind.
Where did she forge her indomitable fighting spirit Maybe in the dingy, sweaty gymnastic hall of Agartala, the capital of Tripura, where she took baby steps in the demanding sport. In an interview to BBC recently, Dipa spoke how she struggled to get even basic equipment for training in the early days of her career. For training sessions, she borrowed oversized, ill-fitting costume. The training hall was full of rats and cockroaches. Dipa persevered against all the odds because she had a mission to accomplish in a sport few cared to pay attention to in India. Fortunately for her, support at home was total. Dipa’s father, Dulal Karmakar, threw his weight behind her. As a weightlifting coach with Sports Authority of India, he didn’t need any reminding of the challenges confronting an Indian athlete. In Nandi, she has a mentor who shares her agony and ecstasy.
As Dipa keeps stressing in all her interviews, gymnastics is fraught with danger. A slight lapse in concentration can paralyse a gymnast. It can even prove fatal as chances for breaking the neck are ever present. She never forgets to add that nothing can be achieved in life without taking risks. Training can be fun if gymnasts train as a team. For Dipa, though, training is a lonely endevaour because there is no one at her level in India. “But I never fail to train for four to five hours a day,” she said. The intrepid woman knows that perfection on the big stage is achieved through her sweat in training. Winning a medal at Rio isn’t going to be easy for Dipa but it would be foolish to rule anything out in the gymnast's case because blazing a trail has become a hobby for her in the last two years. The final word should go to Shah Rukh Khan whose congratulatory tweet to Dipa read: “Finally our own Nadia Comaneci. Dipa Karmakar u r the pride of our Nation. Ur achievements inspire us. Thanks lil one.”