The BBC commentators couldn’t stop raving about Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s feat on the vault at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The petite Bengali girl from Agartala was making history with the Produnova vault (the daunting handspring double front made memorable by Russian gymnast Elena Produnova) and a difficulty level of seven. As the lady commentator observed, the act called for “massive heel speed”.

Karmakar went on to prove she had not only the speed but also unwavering resolve. As she bounded towards the goal, courage writ large on her face, she was a picture of unflinching determination.

Her bronze medal-worthy individual performance rekindled memories of badminton star Prakash Padukone’s win at the all-England Championship in 1980. Padukone was the rare Indian sportsperson to beat the odds without any support from the system.

Even today, only the foolhardy pursue a sport like gymnastics in India. “I was not even aware of what gymnastics was when my father (a weightlifting coach) took me to the coaching centre. I did not like it initially, it was so tough, but gradually my approach changed,” says the 22-year-old Karmakar, who kept at it because her father, Dulal Karmakar, and coach, Bisweswar Nandi, were convinced she had what it takes.

Her father credits her body structure — supple and strong — for her natural gymnastic abilities. But honing them proved a great challenge as she had access to few facilities. Karmakar’s passion for her chosen discipline deepened after she started making waves at the junior level.

A completely self-made athlete, she had no financial support apart from government allowances at coaching camps. Currently employed as a gymnastics instructor with the State Sports Department earning a monthly salary of ₹6,000, Karmakar is pursuing a degree in Humanities (second year) through distance education.

Her achievement at the Glasgow CWG is all the more special when you consider that the Indian women’s gymnastics team didn’t have a foreign coach and Karmakar overcame a minor injury in the qualifying round. “Only three girls have attempted this difficult vault. We trained for it for just three months,” says Nandi, who has been Karmakar’s coach since she was six.

Her combined score in the two final vault attempts was 14.366 as against Canada’s Elsabeth Black (Silver 14.433) and England’s Claudia Fragpane (Gold 14.633). Clearly, she narrowly missed the gold and silver. “I know. A beginning has been made. I will look to win a medal next month at the Asian Games (in Incheon, Korea),” she says with the confidence of a winner, even as she sets her sights higher on the 2016 Rio Olympics.

And why not? Hers was a feat unseen for 20 long years in the gymnastics world, bringing glory to her coach, parents, country and the entire gymnastics fraternity. “I could see my teammates weeping with joy in the stands,” she says. Indeed joy has remained elusive in the world of Indian gymnastics, worn down by an apathetic ecosystem. Riddled by corruption and corroded by self-promoting officials, the country’s gymnastics federation was stripped of all support from the Union Government two years ago. Only recently did the federation regain recognition.

I have seen young gymnasts landing on grass while training in archaic conditions at Delhi’s Nehru Stadium. The chances of injury are dangerously high. Training for eight to 10 hours on outdated apparatus, craving exposure at international-level contests, accepting whatever comes their way, including squalid accommodation at training camps, Indian gymnasts have suffered it all.

Says Laxman Singh Bisht, former junior international gymnast and a long-time coach, “Many young careers have been cut short because of injuries during training. I know some gymnasts were paralysed too. It is the mother of all sports, but few in our country care. The equipment and facilities have improved of late, and I am sure Karmakar’s achievement will be a great source of motivation.”

Ashish Kumar had earlier shown the way by bagging a medal each at the 2010 Asian Games and 2010 CWG to become the first Indian gymnast to taste victory at the international level.

As Karmakar landed triumphantly on the foam pit at the CWG, she knew it was her moment… and that of Indian gymnastics. “Ashish bhaiyya had done it for the boys. My medal is for the girls. We have the potential, and all we plead for are facilities,” she says.

( Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports, The Hindu )

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