It’s a humid afternoon in August and the practice session is hot and heavy. The training hall at Delhi's Indira Gandhi Sports Complex is packed with gymnasts, most of them perched on various equipment. The air conditioners are off, so are the fans. A springboard, a vault and a foam pit are placed in the right corner of the hall, ready to launch gymnasts and their dreams. This is the picture from the coaching camp for the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, from September 7 to 13.
Coach Bishweshwar Nandi, a former international gymnast, looks on as four female gymnasts line up to practise on the vault. Some execute a simple twist; one of them does a complicated double full twist. The girls land awkwardly, but one of them lands cleanly, gracefully, almost every time. She is Dipa Karmakar, India’s second gymnast after Ashish Kumar to win international medals and the first Indian female gymnast to win a bronze in the Commonwealth Games (2014) and in the Asian Championships (2015).
In a bright turquoise leotard, her hair tied in a pony tail, Karmakar is a picture of grace and finesse. After every attempt, she adjusts the springboard slightly and smoothens the top of the vault, removing any impression of the previous handspring. There is little said between her and Nandi. She repeats her vaults long after the others have completed their quota, and seems unhappy with her landing. Sweaty, tired and determined, she executes a clean double vault, forcing others to clap and cheer in awe. The 22-year-old, however, is unmoved and walks back to her mark.
A recent Arjuna Award recipient, Karmakar, from Agartala, won both her international medals with the Produnova vault. Only three other women have successfully executed the difficult vault—Elena Produnova of Russia, Yamilet Pena of the Dominican Republic and Fadwa Mahmoud of Egypt.
Elena Produnova has won multiple international medals and performed the vault, later named after her, in 1999. The artistic gymnastics vault—a front handspring and two front somersaults—has a 7.0 D score and is considered one of the hardest vaults today. It has few fans in the fraternity as the risk of injury is high. But, the chances of scoring high urge medal aspirants to go for it.
At the Glasgow Commonwealth Games last year, Karmakar went for broke. And, as she struck the landing, the commentators gasped in delight. One of them said on air that it was the first time he had seen someone execute the vault so well after Produnova. Eight months later, Karmakar repeated the feat in the Asian Championships in Hiroshima.
“I was very fond of doing vaults and told sir that we should try this,” says Karmakar. “He said, 'Okay, let's try'. Once we started practising the Produnova, I really got into it. I started doing the Produnova in March 2013 and I got a medal in 2014. It took me three months to get it right. It was very difficult but I focused more on the vaulting.”
Her father, Dulal Karmakar, a weightlifting coach with the Sports Authority of India, had brought her to Nandi when she was six. Nandi, also from Agartala, has been a patient tutor, helping his young ward learn not only gymnastics, but also a good work ethic. He says he gave her “his own nature”, too. There is a sound understanding between coach and ward, and Nandi lets her take her own decisions. “Seeing her speed, attitude and determination helped me decide to go for the Produnova,” he says. “Besides, she was very upset after the girls got nothing in the 2010 Commonwealth Games. She came crying to me and said she had to win a medal the next time. She was also upset that the foreign coaches and other senior coaches felt the boys could deliver a medal but not the girls.”
Karmakar has a short frame and a short fuse. She wanted to show her critics that girls, too, could bring glory to the country. However, she admits that she wouldn't have won her medals had it not been for Ashish Kumar. “I never thought about winning at the world level till Ashish bhaiyya got a medal,” she says. “I had a very good coach, but it was very difficult coming from a tiny state with no infrastructure. Even at the senior level, there aren’t many facilities in the country but, after his medal, people have got to know that gymnastics exists in India.”
Her temper, says Nandi, is one of the reasons he says little to her when she messes up a vault. “When her father brought her to me, he told me she was very short tempered,” he says. “I know her nature, I never go near her when she’s angry. I say 'Beta all okay, do well'. I don’t know whether she will listen or not, but I tell her what to do. Her anger works for her.”
Karmakar, on her part, admits that her temper affects her, but she tries to keep things calm while performing. “I can never control it. If I don’t do well in two to three attempts, my temperature shoots up,” she says. A few sports psychologists at SAI are helping her with her anger issues and have given her some exercise routines to follow.
Regardless of her short fuse, Karmakar is a favourite among coaches, trainers, fellow campers and even the security guards. And, though she is famous in her home state, she has no starry airs.
Karmakar follows three rules: A disciplined diet, no phones during training, and no deep friendships that could distract her. Even on off days she ensures she doesn’t tire her legs.
When she first came to Nandi, he was unsure whether she could become a gymnast as she was flatfooted. “I would wonder how she would do the jumps,” he says. “I made her do exercises that required patience. She would do them three to four times and stop. It took six months to get rid of the flatfoot. A sports scientist at the SAI centre in Kolkata said she could not become a gymnast. I was furious and said I’ll make sure she does.”
And, he did. Now, her recent success has earned her a place in the government's Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which assures financial assistance and the chance to train at the best centres in the world. A medal at the upcoming World Championships would qualify her for the Rio Olympics. Even a fourth place finish could help her sneak in through a wild card entry. Karmakar, however, wants the direct entry. “Now the difficulty has increased; people are doing four twists,” she says. “But, if I have the drive, I can do anything.”
* Karmakar, 22, is the first Indian woman and second Indian to win a medal in gymnastics at the Commonwealth Games
* An all-around competitor and a vault specialist
* One of four women to execute the difficult Produnova vault
* Won gold medals in all five individual events at the 2011 National Games
* Won the bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland
* Finished fourth in the vault final at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, despite suffering a hairline ankle fracture
* Swept all individual events in the 2015 National Games
* Won bronze at the Asian Championships in Hiroshima, Japan