A gymnast’s death-defying leap to success
Moviegoers might have been swooning to Salman “Tiger” Khan’s swashbuckling defiance of death in “Sultan”, but a young tigress in her own right has been for some time now, landing just a bit off probable death with a grace, purists and enthusiasts from all of the gymnastics universe say they haven’t seen in nearly two decades.
A tigress, not just because of the iron-pumped start up run and predatory leap that precedes Dipa Karmakar’s transition into queen-like grace through the two front somersaults mid-air and sinew straining landing, but also because the Produnova, her speciality, is rated the highest of 7.00 on the difficulty scale of women’s gymnastics. The technique is considered almost fatal as a bad landing can cause serious spine and back injuries and has even pushed some experts to call for its ban.
Dipa’s nonchalance though has brought in hope. When the nation was celebrating its first female gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and its first gymnast in over fifty years to qualify for the same, the gymnastic universe was celebrating the flicker of a hope that the dazzlingly dangerous technique would survive the dearth of talents who dared it. Only two of Karmakar’s contemporaries have tried it out in competitions and failed in replicating any of Yelena Produnova’s perfection from ’99, after whom the technique is named.
Neither has Karmakar succeeded in the dismount stick (landing feet unbent) that made Yelena more equal than others on the circuit. But the power of her run and near-clean landing (cleanest since the progenitor) has turned around many sceptics, who believe the baton might at last be passed on to a fitting pair of feet. Karmakar holds the record for the highest ever score with the Produnova, a reasonably clearly exhibited 15.100. And she has only been getting better since her first big P at the Glassgow Commonwealth games two years ago which fetched her the country’s first ever Commonwealth medal in women’s gymnastics.
That the admirers of the art are seeing the revival of one of its boldest forms by someone from a non-traditional country is what has amused many, delightfully. There is barely an existing gymnastics scenario in India except in some states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Manipur and Tripura. There too, the fight for relevance, and more importantly funds, is fought with the likes of football, boxing, and horror of horrors, cricket. When Dipa was ecstatic with the ‘mere’ 30 lakhs promised to her on her qualification for Rio, most other competitors were taken by surprise.
They should have seen her thanking the government for building her a foam pit, something the other athletes would take for granted as a bare and readily available essential when she had come fifth at the finals of the Gymnastics World Championships earlier this year (again a first for an Indian woman). Moreover, she had overcome not just the dearth of resources but also the bureaucratic bamboozle of playing a sport that did not even have a functioning federation back at home (the more ubiquitous Sports Authority of India had played godfather and arranged for her camp in Delhi before the championships).
In clearing the deadwood, the second year B.A. student had help. Her home state of Tripura has had all three of its Arjuna awardees come from gymnastics. Her father Dulal Karmakar, a weightlifting coach with SAI who pushed her into gymnastics at the age of six has always been very supportive. And her coach Bishweswar Nandi is a product of Dalip Singh, an ex-Army physical instructor who brought gymnastics to Tripura and oversaw the golden generation that had the state dominating the event in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Nandi has since helped oversee the revival of the sport in the state, Dipa being the jewel in the crown. And ever since the originally flat footed athlete (a damning condition in the sport) won her first Junior Nationals in 2007, there has been no looking back.
The women’s vault event in Rio this August will therefore not just have medal-hungry Indians and a tiny state raring to regain its dominance in the gutsy sport, but all of gymnastic-dom hoping that the tigress on her hunt for the gold will succeed in bringing the deathly art back to life. Maybe Produnova, who herself never won an Olympic gold, will be breathlessly praying that her invention gets the prodigy what it didn’t get her.
And I’ll be watching the hunt just as eagerly too. Will you?