India’s most successful gymnast of all time, Dipa Karmakar has recently recovered from a knee injury that kept her out of the sport for about two years. Currently preparing for the 2020 Olympic Qualifiers, she speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about her training regimen, her future goals, and the historic Produnova vault she executed at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
There is a move in artistic gymnastics known as the “vault of death”. The name is enough to dissuade young gymnasts. It involves a series of complicated manoeuvres: a front handspring off the vault, followed by two-and-a-half somersaults in the air before the gymnast lands on two feet. What makes the vault so dangerous? If not performed with high skill and precision, the move can prove costly. The gymnast can end up with a broken neck or some other serious career-ending injury. Some professionals who attempted it did actually suffer such a fate.
The vault was successfully performed for the first time by the Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova in 1999, after which it came to be known by her last name. Till today, there are only five gymnasts in the world who have successfully pulled off the high-risk Produnova vault. Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar is one of them.
The world watched her perform this most difficult of vaults in sporting history at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. Months ahead of the event, Karmakar’s coach Bishweshwar Nandi was convinced that the Produnova vault would help her gain glory at the Games.
“I and my coach wanted to win a medal for India,” Karmakar told Guardian 20. “We knew we had to do it anyhow and this vault was the answer. It was considered dangerous, but it could get us the points. So we chose it. It required a lot of practice.”
So she set out preparing for a move most gymnasts are scared of even attempting. “I was always ready to do the Produnova vault. I did not have any inhibitions. I always want to try difficult vaults. I was ready to put in the effort and worked continuously on my fitness and speed. I learned from the original routine of Elena Produnova by watching her videos. I was enthusiastic about executing the vault on the world stage. There was no element of fear. I am lucky that I got a coach like Nandi Sir and he is a big reason why I was able to perform the vault. My family supported me too. The journey was really tough but I have made it till here only because of their support. Today, people know me because of the Produnova vault.”
Hailing from Agartala, Tripura, the 25-year-old is the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and win medals in various international competitions. She finished fourth in Women’s Vault Gymnastics at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where, too, she performed the Produnova vault.
Gymnastics doesn’t dominate the sporting sphere in India. Karmakar has her father to thank for introducing her to the sport. She was just five-and-a-half years old when her father enrolled her in Agartala’s Vivekananda Byamagar, the old gymnasium he had himself once attended.
She said, “My baba really liked gymnastics and that’s why he made me take it up. I only started this because of my family. Personally, I did not have any interest in it initially. But I trained hard and won many medals in gymnastics. Around 2009-10, I realised that I should continue this professionally. That’s when I got really interested in the game.”
She has had to overcome many challenges in her career. But she has always remained positive in the face of difficulties and believes that nothing can be achieved without hardships. “I belong to a really small state and I chose a sport people were unaware of. But I worked hard to perform well. Despite all the struggles, I sailed through because of the support of my coach. I kept putting in the hard work and reached where I am today.”
One of the challenges she faced was training in settings that lacked sporting infrastructure on a par with international standards. “When I used to train while growing up, we did not have proper equipment. That is very important for a gymnast and we did not have that. We tried to get those things and had to practice without them. But I was determined, as was my coach, to just keep moving forward.”
Even today, Agartala has little to offer Karmakar in terms of training facilities. “Time and again we have to go and practice in Delhi. That’s how I spend my training days before competitions. There were times when I came across equipment in international competitions which were not familiar to me. I had to learn their applications in a limited time. So for the competitions, I had to pick up things very quickly,” she said.
The talented gymnast’s journey has been chronicled in a new book, Dipa Karmakar: The Small Wonder, which was launched recently. Co-authored by Karmakar’s coach, Bishweshwar Nandi, and sports journalists Digvijay Singh Deo and Vimal Mohan, the book presents an account of her initial years in the sport, the hardships she faced while training in her small town, and the successes she won on the international stage despite all odds.
Talking about the experience of sharing her story through the book, Karmakar said, “I am extremely thankful to the authors who have written such a wonderful book. When I was presented with the idea to have a book written about my life, I was elated. I can’t put those feelings into words. I believe women can achieve anything and people can learn a lot from this book, especially aspiring gymnasts. I hope that this book manages to inspire people and contribute to the future of gymnastics in India.”
Dipa Karmakar: The Small Wonder includes an interesting anecdote about how she coped with having failed to win a medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi—a failure that made her the target of much ridicule. A paragraph from the book reads: “Defeats and setbacks make you tougher. In 2010, the boys and many others in my team jeered at me. I heard one male gymnast taunt, ‘Ye bhains hai aur iska coach gadha’ (She is a buffalo and her coach a donkey). Hurtful comments and taunts became a routine. But I smartened under their jabs. The target was set—it was a medal at the Glasgow Games four years from then on. It was uncharted territory, no Indian female gymnast had won a medal at multi-discipline games, but I needed to win. I needed to prove myself. That stubborn streak in me had taken over.”
Being the first woman gymnast from India to participate and win in various competitions, Karmakar feels no pressure or burden of expectations. “My Sir doesn’t let me take any pressure. Whatever I know, everything that I have learned is the only thing that can help me achieve more things. He urges me to not think about the results and just focus on the performance. So we focus on my personal development. I just keep doing what I want to do. I have a psychologist, Bhavna Chouhan, to help me with being calm and composed before performances.”
Owing to a knee injury ahead of the Asian Games 2018, Karmakar had to take a break from competitive sports and training for almost two years. She returned to the vaulting table this year in July and bagged the gold at FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Challenge Cup in Mersin, Turkey. In November, she won the bronze medal in vault event at the Artistic Gymnastics World Cup in Cottbus, Germany.
Karmakar refers to that recovery period of two years as the most difficult phase in her career. “It was immensely difficult. I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t do the thing I love. I can’t express how heartbreaking those days were. An injury can end one’s career. It is very difficult to get back in the field. One needs to gain the strength physically and mentally,” she said.
At present, her daily practice routine involves training from 8:30 a.m. till 12:30 p.m., and another session from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. At times it rounds up to 8-12 hours a day.
But most of her training sessions take place in Delhi. She said, “Delhi has the infrastructure. There are a lot of private centres which provide great facilities. But a change has to be brought in state-run centres so that more and more kids can gain access to world-class training opportunities. Small towns, like the one I grew up in, still don’t offer this. I hope it happens soon.”
About popularising gymnastics in India, she said, “I just feel it has to be a collective effort. People should come together and help in building and maintaining the training centres. This will include raising awareness of gymnastics and encouraging youngsters to take up the sport.”
As she prepares for the qualifiers for 2020 Summer Olympics, set to take place in Tokyo, Japan, Karmakar’s current state of mind is best reflected in the last lines of the book. Dipa Karmakar: The Small Wonder’s epilogue ends with these words: “Personally the loss of two years is a setback but I am back on my feet, I am determined again. Once again, it is the turn of the donkey and the buffalo to prove everyone wrong. We have done it once, and we can do it again.”