Ashish Kumar is composed as he balances on the parallel bars in the wrestling arena of the Balewadi sports complex in Pune. The arena is being used as a makeshift gymnastics centre for the ongoing Commonwealth Games selection camp.
When coach Nirbhaya Singh calls out to him, he looks in Singh’s direction, and without the slightest indication of being distracted, gracefully does a double somersault, lands on his feet and then rushes to meet the coach.
Poised: Ashish Kumar, an Indian Railways employee, practising at the Balewadi sports complex in Pune. Sandesh Bhandare
It’s the third consecutive year that 19-year-old Kumar from Allahabad has been declared India’s national champion in gymnastics. A natural sportsman, he ventured into the sport by chance. Like other gymnasts from Uttar Pradesh, Kumar is the product of one man’s vision.
U.K. Mishra, chief patron of the National Sports Academy and a gymnast himself, lobbied for and set up the world-class Allahabad Gymnastics Centre in 1989 in the belief that you need facilities for success—not the other way around. Mishra and fellow gymnasts went about coaxing people to send their children for gymnastics with the slogan “join gymnastics for Olympic honours”.
When Kumar was four years old, his cousin’s friend Rohit Yadav, a national-level gymnast, noticed that he was smaller in frame than most children his age and persuaded his family to send him for training.
“I was too young to understand anything. The equipment looked fancy and I liked jumping about on them,” says Kumar, who aces in floor exercises and the vault.
Once the facilities were in place, the state began producing several champions, most of whom bagged not just medals, national and international, but also lucrative government jobs. This encouraged Kumar’s family to support his training, which also meant turning a blind eye to his average academic performance. Kumar, who completed class XII, claims that more than 2 hours of studying gives him a headache.
Being short and light (he is now 5ft 3 inches tall and weighs 49kg) he was able to outperform other children without trying too hard. The casual attitude cost him—he failed to qualify for the Tulit Peter Cup International Championship in 2001. Kumar, then 11, decided to get serious.
The Tulit Peter Cup is a children’s championship held in Budapest, Hungary, every year. Nirbhaya Singh says Indian children, especially from Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, win up to 15 medals each year.
Kumar worked hard an entire year but was sick with typhoid before the next selection process and didn’t make it to the championship.
“I went crying to my mother and told her I wanted to leave gymnastics,” he recalls. “She told me to be patient and give it some more time.” He followed his mother’s advice and since then, he says, he has won a medal in every tournament he has participated in.
In 2003, he won the Tulit Cup; in 2004, he won one silver medal and four bronze medals at the Children of Asia Games held in Yakutsk, Russia. In 2005, it was two gold and two silver medals at the Rajiv Gandhi International Championship. But his treasured wins are the bronze at the 3rd Senior Asian Gymnastics Championship held in Surat in 2006 and 10th Artistic and Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship held in Damascus in 2007.
“I competed with the best from all over Asia, including the Chinese team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics,” he says, beaming with pride.
In the Artistic Gymnastics World Championship held in London last year, Kumar ranked 67th (out of 247 competitors) even though he had a hairline fracture. For him, however, the highlight of the championship was meeting his idol Alexei Nemov, the Russian gymnast who has won 12 Olympic medals. “I was excited and star-struck when I met him. He even spoke to me,” he gushes.
Kumar is gearing up for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. He’s confident of winning. “It’s just that those Canadians give me trouble,” grumbles the Indian Railways employee.