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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Olympics | Dipa Karmakar: The daredevil

Olympics | Dipa Karmakar: The daredevil

From fashioning a springboard from shock absorbers to becoming one of the world's top gymnasts

Dipa Karmakar. Photo: ReutersPremium
Dipa Karmakar. Photo: Reuters

A printout on the wall outside the gymnastics hall at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium reads, “Gymnastics Training—Dipa and Others". Yes, you have to separate Dipa Karmakar from the rest of her fellow gymnasts. And perhaps from a whole bunch of other Indian athletes as well. Because that’s how phenomenal the 22-year-old gymnast from Tripura, and her achievement, is.

Karmakar is the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. Six Indian male gymnasts competed at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, but there was really no qualification system back then. In April, Karmakar made history when she scored 14.833 to finish with gold in the women’s vault finals at the test event in Rio. It was good enough to earn her an Olympic berth.

Click here to see Olympic gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s training for the Rio Olympics

Inside the training hall at the stadium, young gymnasts, male and female, are going about their routines. Some are just warming up with light jogs around the hall, others are stretching, and yet others are already on to their apparatus—the balance beam, the vaulting table, the uneven bars.

Karmakar is in a corner, attended to by her coach Bisweshwar Nandi. The two are working on conditioning exercises.

“The neck, spine, back, legs...everything is of supreme importance in gymnastics," says Nandi. “But the core is the most important thing. It has to be the strongest." Nandi holds his student’s legs up in the air as she tries to leap ahead with her hands on the floor. Minutes later, Karmakar is walking on her hands. She takes eight hand-steps ahead, turns around and hand-walks eight steps back. She repeats the routine five times before getting back on her feet.

“Everything looks ulta (upside down), but it’s not that difficult," says a smiling Karmakar. Right side up again, she is rubbing the sweat off her cheeks and settling down with an energy drink. She makes it sound simple, but, of course, it is not. Just like her own journey this far hasn’t been.

They may have made their way into the history books, but Nandi and his ward can never tire of talking about their humble beginnings. “Dipa was six years old when she came to me at the Vivekananda Vyamagar (in Agartala, Tripura)," recalls Nandi. “And she was not extraordinary or special. I had many more talented girls than her in the club," says the former gymnast. But one quality set the young girl apart. “Mujhe din raat tang karti thi (she used to bug me day and night)," says Nandi of his stubborn student. “Make me train more, make me work like the bigger girls, teach me like them."

Nandi couldn’t refuse. But a conversation with a visiting sports scientist from Kolkata left him apprehensive. “I asked this doctor to analyse if Dipa’s body structure was suitable for full-time gymnastics," he says. The response was in the negative. “He said Dipa had a big problem. She was flat-footed. Apart from uneven bars, all the routines and apparatus involve jumps, which are impossible to do without a curve on the foot."

This news, however, did not erode Karmakar’s determination, and Nandi continued to train her. Their equipment was modest and makeshift. They stacked eight crash mats to make a vaulting platform. With some help from a carpenter, they constructed a springboard with springs and shock absorbers from an old, discarded scooter. During the monsoon, when frogs and insects would take shelter inside the tiny club, they would have to stop training for a few days.

It was only after 2007, when she did well at the nationals, that Karmakar began training harder. “And, of course, I had to make sacrifices. I wanted to become perfect," she says.

In 2010, Ashish Kumar brought gymnastics into the limelight in India with his medals at the Commonwealth (CWG) and Asian Games, but things didn’t change much for the sport. There was, however, at least some imported equipment that had been purchased for the CWG event. Nandi and his student shifted base to Delhi, moving from their discarded shock-absorber springboard to the real thing.

After four years of rigorous training on the equipment, Nandi proposed that they attempt the risky and rare Produnova vault. The Glasgow CWG were to be held three months later, in August, 2014.

“It was just an idea I had in my head," Nandi says. “In countries where gymnastics isn’t too popular, you try difficult moves because they help you get more points at the competition." But not only is the Produnova difficult, it is downright dangerous. So dangerous that the gymnastics world is actually debating whether to allow it or not. The Produnova vault involves a handspring followed by a double front vault, which, if done incorrectly, could injure the spine and neck seriously. It could even lead to death. So rare is the vault, named after the former Russian gymnast, that only five gymnasts across the world have done it successfully—and three, including Karmakar, do it currently.

“I was excited," says Karmakar. “We trained non-stop, because we had very little time before Glasgow. My body used to be tired, but not my mind. I knew it was risky, but how can you achieve something special if you don’t take a risk?"

“My heart stopped every time she did it during training," says Nandi. “What if she slipped? What if she missed something or did even a little thing wrong? I just told her, just think this is IG stadium, where we have practised this a hundred times." When Karmakar produced the perfect Produnova in Glasgow’s SSE Hydro arena and won a bronze medal, there was a mini explosion in the world of gymnastics.

Since then, every achievement of hers has been a milestone. She won a bronze medal at the Asian Gymnastics Championships in 2015 and made it to the final of the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships the following year, both firsts by an Indian gymnast. In Glasgow, at the World Championships last year, the legendary Nadia Comaneci came and patted Karmakar on the back after she had missed out on a medal. “She said my chance would come; I should not be dejected," remembers Karmakar, flashing her trademark smile. “Can you imagine what that means to me? I come from Tripura, such a small state. I am sure she has never heard of it. And here I am, on such a big stage, hearing words of encouragement from her."

The Olympic qualification has changed Karmakar’s life. “In Tripura, they have made me a celebrity. They take autographs and selfies," she says. And performing the Produnova has given her worldwide fame. The International Gymnastics Federation named her a “world-class gymnast" after her top 5 finish at the World Championships last year.

“I really enjoyed my time in Rio during the qualification event," she says. “The weather was like India. And inside the gym, there were so many people shouting my name that not for once did I feel I was in a foreign country."

As she gets up, secures her hair clips, dusts off the powder on her palms and adjusts her black and blue training leotard before a vaulting session, Karmakar says, “I am not putting any pressure on myself. I know the Olympics is my biggest stage, and I have never been there before, but I promise you I will give my best."

Come August, the gymnastics world’s eyes are going to be on her. For now though, it’s just her fellow gymnasts at the stadium, who have stopped their training and lined up close by to watch.

Suprita Das is a senior sports correspondent with NDTV.

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Published: 28 Jul 2016, 05:05 PM IST
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