Effort spectacular, journey from Tripura to medal reckoning in Olympic gymnastics even more so
It was a vault that got the entire country talking. Dipa Karmakar stood there and stared at the apparatus in front of her, as she has done countless times. Only this time, an entire nation was staring at her, wondering if this was indeed one of those stories that was too good to be true. And then she ran up with all the purpose of a gazelle sprinting away from a lurking predator, propelled herself into the air with her hands, did a couple of somersaults and landed on her feet, the blue fabric of her leotard, ever so slightly grazing the mat as she did so. She stood up, the expression on her face one of sheer delight and ran over to coach Bisweswar Nandi, whose eyes were already on the scoreboard. And then it flashed. Second place! In the Olympic vault final!
Of course, Dipa’s story ended being one of those almost fairy- tales where the protagonist loses out on the big prize and wins only hearts. But her fourth place had a country – otherwise programmed to change the channel when stuff like gymnastics came on – sit up and blabber. All of a sudden, Rajinikanth was her fan as was Sachin Tendulkar. She was ‘an inspiration’ to India’s only individual gold medallist Abhinav Bindra. The President and the Prime Minister were putting out statements.
Sitting in her room in the Games Village in Rio, Dipa must have thought what would have been, had she got all this support four years ago. It is perhaps the greatest irony of Dipa’s story that she has entered a nation’s consciousness when she least needs it. “I will aim for gold in Tokyo,” the diminutive Agartala girl said after the event. But barring a miracle of gigantic proportions, the fourth place in Rio will remain the pinnacle of Dipa’s career. She may still be young, but 23 in gymnastics is old. McKayla Maroney, silver winner in the vault in 2012, is three years younger and has been retired a year. The Produnova, the death-defying routine that allows Dipa to hang with gymnasts who have perfected more conventional move-sets, will likely be devalued from seven points to six after Rio. A difficulty-point less will have a drastic effect on Dipa’s scores — subtract one from her tally in Rio and she would have finished in the thirties.
For more than two decades, Dipa had to struggle away in an isolated corner of the country, devoid of the kind of infrastructure and expertise that any of her fellow finalists in Rio would have taken for granted. The daughter of a SAI weightlifting coach, Dipa was written off by experts at the age of 8. She had flat feet, they said, and would never be a top-level gymnast. Nandi was one of the few who believed in her. “She was always very determined,” he recollected in a interview to Express in July. “I gave her a set of exercises, that would correct the contour of her feet. Within an year, she had changed the shape of her feet.”
Nandi, perhaps, is one of the more astonishing aspects of Dipa’s story. He stumbled upon her, a wide-eyed four-year-old under his wife’s tutelage. Ever since, he’d stuck with her, trying to make up for what she lacked in infrastructure, with the kind of jugaad that would make every Indian proud. To practice the Produnova, a move that if done wrong could end up being fatal, the duo put together a makeshift foam pit at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi. Dipa coming fourth is quite the story. But Dipa coming fourth without a foreign coach — a must-have these days in Indian sports — playing a part in her development at any stage, makes it all the more special. That being said, Dipa and Nandi did have the chance to go abroad and train in the run-up to Rio.
“SAI had given us an opportunity to go abroad but we thought if we have come this far without going abroad we can do it again,” Nandi said, immediately after Dipa’s performance. Amidst all the chatter about the Make in India initiative, this is perhaps the closest anyone will come in quite some time, to making an Olympic medal in India.