Taking unchartered path

Personality : Hailing from the nondescript Agartala, gymnast Dipa has battled several odds to create history

Taking unchartered path

In a sport where the colour of a medal could differ by the tiniest fraction of a third decimal point, one is forced to attempt something special in a bid to gain an advantage over their rivals. Coming from a country where gymnastics is far from being a mainstream sport, young vaulter Dipa Karmakar attempted the extraordinary at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Aware that the only route to glory was to go all out, the Agartala girl took guard, ready to unleash her secret weapon --  Produnova -- that had everyone in rapt attention. Apart from the fact that no woman gymnast from India had won a medal at the CWG, what had everyone curious was Dipa’s courage to attempt something that is considered the most difficult move with a rating of 7.0.

But scaling adversities is child’s play for the 22-year-old. Camouflaging a decade of pain and suffering in anticipation of achieving a rare feat, Dipa hardly betrayed any nerves. Setting off for the most important jump until then in her career, Dipa completed the stunning move that had the commentator saying “I’ve not seen that in 20 years.”

That special jump named after inventor Yelena Produnova and achieved by only four others helped Dipa claim a historic bronze medal, sparking off a frenzy in the gymnastics fraternity. “A lot of people in the gymnastic fraternity now call me Produnova girl!” gushed Dipa on the sidelines of a conclave hosted by Go Sports, the foundation that supports her, in Bengaluru last week.

“At hotels and competition venues, people recognised me. People recognised me at this year’s world championship. It’s quite rare for an Indian to be recognised at a gymnastics world championship. All this motivates me to win more and more medals.”

“Produnova is the most difficult move in gymnastics. You could even die if you don’t land properly. My coach Bisbeshwar Nandi told me that if I wanted to win a medal, then I had to take risk. I told him that I was prepared to give it my all. Only a handful of gymnasts had done it. Some coaches were also not keen on me attempting it because it could go awfully wrong and wreck my career. But I was confident of my abilities. I practiced extremely hard and I was delighted that it helped me get a medal at the CWG. I lost a silver medal by a fraction of a point.”

That success acted as a catalyst for Dipa to win a historic bronze medal at the Asian Championship in Hiroshima and a fifth place finish at World Championships in Glasgow -- both this year. Not only is she a recognisable athlete in the country now with cricket legends Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid showering praise on her incredible feats, even superpowers Americans and Russians too chat up with her candidly during tournaments.

“It made me feel great when I trained with the US team for the world championships. Their head coach felt I was very sincere in my work and I have the potential to win a medal. To train with world champions and Olympic champions is a dream come true. At the world championship, where I finished fifth, the top three finishers were Olympic medal winners. To compete in such a strong field and finish fifth means a lot to me.”

All this has come after a nearly decade of struggle for Dipa. Forced by her wrestling coach father to take up gymnastics, she honed her skills in make-shift apparatus under the guidance of Nandi for the better part of her career. “I faced a lot of hurdles since I started learning gymnastics. I come from Agartala (in Tripura) which is a very small city. Some people in India are not even aware that Agartala is in Tripura. It hurt a lot initially. When I started, there weren’t many facilities in my hometown. Now, SAI is there, Go Sports is there, but back then, I had nothing to train with. I need to thank these people for giving me the facilities now.

“Initially people thought gymnastics was circus. Now they feel it is a sporting discipline. Gymnastics is not popular as cricket, football, badminton or boxing. Initially even I didn’t even know what gymnastics is all about. My dad loved gymnastics. Dad wanted to be gymnast because he couldn’t be one. His family members could not support his dream. He wanted to realise his dream through me. He wanted me to make the nation proud. I won a medal at the junior nationals and soon I was called-up for the national camp. At the 2010 Commonwealth Asian Games, Ashish Kumar won a medal. I felt even I could do something for my State and country. That’s when I started to take up gymnastics very seriously.”

Praising the facilities now that she considers world class, Dipa, who is awaiting her ticket for the 2016 Rio Olympics after missing out on a direct berth by finishing fifth at the World Championships, said her goal is to win a medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. “Rio, as of now, is 50-50. So the next real target is the 2018 CWG. When girls come to the nationals, they say they want to beat me. And for me to win, I need to raise the bar. I’m in the reserves for the Olympics. Medallists at the world championships gain direct entry to the Olympics. Since I finished fifth, I need to await a decision from the world body. My main target though is to win a medal at the Olympics and I’m working really hard towards achieving that.”

Having secured several firsts in her life and being a trend-setter in her chosen field, Dipa can certainly hope to live that dream someday despite the herculean task that is in front of her.

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