Rio De Janeiro: On Sunday,Dipa Karmakar soared in the air and vaulted into history. Before her, no Indian gymnast had ever reached the finals at the Olympics.
In the Brazilian beach city, where almost every event has turned out to be an inventory of anguish for India, here is the heart-warming story of an unwavering 23-yearold girl from Tripura and her equally committed coach (Bisweswar Nandi) who dared to dream the impossible.
At the core of Dipa’s incredible journey is Produnova, one of the most exacting and dangerous vault routines in gymnastics -a front handspring followed by two speedy somersaults in the air, climaxing with a thud-like landing. Named after Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova, few dare attempt the high risk maneuver. But for Dipa, who comes from a lower middle-class family in Agartala, Produnova is a shining badge of identity, her signature. She is the princess of vault.
That’s why at the press conference, when a Wall Street Journal reporter queried her, she was forthright in her reply. “I like to take risks,” she said. Produnova’s inclusion in Dipa’s repertoire was the brainchild of Nandi, a four-time national champion from Tripura, who first saw a South African gymnast perform the routine at the Antwerp World Championship in 2013. “Some people kept saying only boys can do this. I knew my girl’s capabilities,” he once told a newspaper.
The girl has already made him proud. “America’s world champion Simone Biles came to meet me before the event and wished me luck. I was over the moon. When an athlete as big as Biles walks up to you, then you are doing something right,” Dipa said with pride, her eyes shining. She has reason to be happy. “I executed what I had practised. I have no complaints with how it went,” she said. What Dipa did not know for sure then was that she was in line for some more special moments to take back home from Rio. She had scored a 14.850 in the vault routine and was sixth with three subdivisions of qualification yet to go.
She had kept her fingers crossed, tightly, thinking of those difficult times spent in the sweaty hall of Agartala where she trained under Nandi, even as a doting former weightlifter-father Dulal watched from the sidelines. Four hours later, when she would have finished dinner at the Games Village, Dipa would have learnt that she had qualified eighth for the vault finals.
She finished 51st overall in a field of 98 but that was incidental, just a number. She is not a beam, floor or an uneven bars girl. She is simply the Produnova girl. It was touch and go when Dipa ignored the debutant’s butterflies and went for broke in vault qualification. She performed the Produnova well in the first attempt but did not have a good second attempt where she had to do something different. You get two tries but you cannot repeat routines.
That was playing on her mind when she walked out to speak to the media. “Second wala thoda weak tha. I wish it was better,”she said. The top eight qualify for the final and she has ended up eighth, with a Q against her name. “Anything is possible. The girl from Great Britain, among the top nations in gymnastics, dropped out due to injury. Right now, I am happy to just be here, to compete with the girls I have admired, idolized,” she told a group of Indian journalists earlier in the evening.
“It feels so different to perform in front of so many spectators…and it does not matter whether they are cheering for you. I just did my thing,” she said. “When I qualified here in the test event, the stands were empty. Today was a great experience.”
But that was Sunday. A bigger occasion waits on August 14, the day of the finals. So how did it feel to be the Indian flag bearer in this arena?
“Top of the world, but it would be great if we go to the 2020 Olympics with a team. What I have done should inspire others. I will keep working hard. I want to go for a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.”
Talking about the judges at the Olympics, Dipa said, “The judging here is very strict. Getting high scores here is very difficult… you really have to very impressive. It is very different from Commonwealth Games, World Championships and Asian Games. People who score 14 in other events, they are scoring just 12 here. In the test event, my average score was 14.7, today my average is 14.850. If my second vault was better I would have been happier.”
She doesn’t need to worry now. She has got her wish – a shot at the medal. Wonder whether Yelena Produnova – after whom this difficult vault routine is named – knows about this unassuming Indian girl who has everyone enthralled here with her front handspring and a double somersault.