Asian Games 2018: Fed up with fourth-place finishes, Dipa Karmakar vows to find glory in continental showpiece
Dipa Karmakar opens up to Firstpost about her injury downtime, her hopes for the upcoming Asian Games, and her desire to break the fourth-place jinx.
Dipa Karmakar stands 25 steps from the vault table, her eyes fixed at a distant target, visualising the Handspring 540 she is about to perform. With her right foot planted across her left, arms stretched at about 45 degrees — two fingers and the thumb of each hand jutting out — she is the human equivalent of an aircraft.
Coach Bishweshwar Nandi sits at the other end, adjusting the springboard. Dipa is struggling for rhythm; her landings are bumpy, and the poetic grace that characterises her routines is making only an intermittent appearance.
“Okay?” asks Nandi.
Dipa nods, and after a deep breath, takes off. Long, measured strides; explosive in their beauty, incoherent in their fluidity. She passes you like a fireball, leaving behind a hot trail. Her 14th stride — the most powerful — lands on the springboard, and she is off the ground. Her right palm touches the vault first, and the thrust generated by her shoulders sends her soaring. She completes one-and-a-half twisted rotations mid-air, and sinks in a sea of foam. In a ditch full of straight, regimented chunks of sponge, Dipa’s face sticks out like a proverbial round hole among square pegs.
A much better effort, but clearly not enough to humour Dipa and Nandi. The coach folds his elbows and brings them close to his chest. “Ekdum tight,” he instructs, and Dipa nods.
“The tighter you hold your arms at the time of jump, the more force you will generate at the vault, which will help you go higher and eventually complete the one-and-a-half twists,” he tells me.
Dipa is annoyed. It’s not a vault she is looking to pull off at the Asian Games — she will, instead do the Handspring 360 that involves just one twisted rotation. But on this sticky New Delhi evening, a day before she is to board the flight to her hometown Agartala to write her MA (Political Science) exam, India’s most celebrated gymnast has decided to stretch herself.
Dipa walks back to her mark, dabs some magnesium bicarbonate and honey on her palm, catches her breath, assimilates her thoughts, fixes her gaze, and takes off. The process lasts precisely 30 seconds. Another explosion of energy, another run that tears through the still air, but by the time she takes her 12th step, Dipa changes course and tails off the runway, much like a flailing aircraft with a failing engine. Not her day today.
Nandi stands emotionless. Dipa was not supposed to train today, but she wanted to. And when Dipa wants something really bad, her father Dulal tells Firstpost, she makes sure she has it.
There’s one word Dulal and Nandi repeatedly use to describe Dipa: Ziddi. It translates to stubborn, but those who know the language would know exactly what it implies. Her latest zid is to do well at the Asian Games in Indonesia. Now, ‘doing well’ carries varying connotations. Does it mean a medal, a certain score, a particular vault done to perfection, or just an injury-free outing?
Dipa chooses her words carefully. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” she says.
“The Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury kept me out of action post Rio Olympics, and I am going into the Asian Games with just 2-3 months of preparation. I will give my best, and hopefully, come back with a medal.”
Last month, Dipa participated in FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Challenge Cup in Mersin, Turkey, and announced her return to competitive field after 23 months. Her score of 14.150 was less than 14.200 that she had registered at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon to finish fourth, but in Turkey, it was good enough to win her gold. The most noticeable part of her Turkey campaign though was the absence of Produnova.
“It was a conscious decision,” says Nandi. “But that doesn’t mean we are shunning that vault completely. We will do it when the time is right.”
Dipa agrees. “Produnova is a very powerful vault, and it puts a lot of pressure on the knees. I don’t want to take undue risks right now. I will do it when I am fully sure.”
Dr Anant Joshi, the renowned orthopaedic surgeon who has operated on some of the country’s best athletes, including Dipa, insists the ACL injury was not a function of Produnova, but an occupational hazard that comes with almost every outdoor sport.
The doctor also impresses on the importance of good rehabilitation, and GoSports Foundation, that has been supporting Dipa through their Rahul Dravid Athlete Mentorship Programme since 2015, stepped in to ensure a smooth recovery. John Gloster, the former physiotherapist of the Indian cricket team, monitored Dipa's rehab with Dr Joshi, and it was not until December 2017 that she returned to practice.
“I think it was a very good decision to keep her away from training and competitions all this while,” says Dr Joshi.
“The decision to push and how much to push is always left to the coach, athlete and physio. There’s no reason why she can’t do the vaults she wants, but she must take it slowly. Also, athlete’s mental toughness plays a big part in his/her return.”
Dr Joshi remembers Dipa’s “cool and collected” demeanour before the surgery, and the general sense of optimism about bouncing back.
“See, if I operate on you, and if you start asking me about complications, I will be worried, because you are being negative. If an athlete asks me, ‘When will I return to action?,’ I am very happy. Dipa was always eager to get back. If your mind is positive, your body will respond accordingly; that positivity differentiates people.”
It would be a bit of a stretch to claim that self-doubt and fear never crossed Dipa’s mind, but Nandi ensured his ward was always in the right mental space.
“She is like my child, and as a coach, it is my duty to take care of her mental health as well. There was just one question she repeatedly asked: ‘What will happen now?’ But I knew she will pull through,” the Dronacharya Award-winning coach says.
Dipa decided to undergo most of her rehabilitation at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi (IG) Indoor Stadium to keep monotony at bay, and went home only when the national team left for international events.
“You can say, I was away from the vault, but not really away from my sport. I just needed to be here.”
In the few days she spent at home, Dipa badgered her father with the same question she repeatedly threw at Nandi: What will happen now?
Dulal, a retired weightlifting coach at Agartala’s Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre, did his best to keep his daughter’s spirits high.
“Frankly, knowing the person she is, I was not worried. It’s natural to feel that way, and as someone associated with sports, I understand that. But the credit really must be given to Dr Joshi and Nandi sir to keep her in the right frame of mind. Also, when you tell her she can’t do something, it makes her all the more determined to do it,” he says.
There’s that zid again.
Sometime in 2013, a foreign coach that Dipa doesn’t wish to name, claimed that India’s women gymnasts were good for nothing. Till that time, no Indian woman gymnast had won an international medal, much less qualified for Olympics. While most would have swallowed it with a bitter sense of realism and lack of worth that typifies failure, it fired Dipa.
“She was really upset,” recalls Dulal.
“She said, ‘Look at what he is saying? Are we really good for nothing?’”
Dulal chose not to reply, but Dipa knew the answer. She went to coach Nandi and said she was ready to do “whatever it takes” to win an international medal.
“I couldn’t get those words out of my head. How could he say that? I just had to prove him wrong,” says Dipa.
Nandi appraised Dipa and thought of a plan. He had seen his ward overcome flat feet by her sheer force of will, and the seasoned coach found a way to give vent to her bubbling desire.
On 1 January, 2014, Nandi and Dipa met at IG Stadium’s gymnastics hall, set their sights on the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and began their quest for history — six hours a day, six days a week.
“The first time we tried Produnova, there were a few awkward landings of course, but Dipa mastered it quickly. It takes 3-4 months to master a vault. I’d say Dipa was really quick to learn it,” Nandi says.
One of the keys to do well in a ‘show’ event is to minimise visible efforts, unlike say, wrestling, boxing, or other contact sports. The ease on the eye is an important component of overall execution, and any visible stress actually goes against the gymnast. Sometime before the team flew to Glasgow, Dulal visited New Delhi to watch Dipa train, and came home assured.
“I saw her do Produnova, and never did I feel it was dangerous or risky. Dipa was really fluid, making everything look so easy,” he remembers.
After seven months of rigourous training, it was showtime. On 31 July, 2014, Dipa flew in the packed SSE Hydro Arena, leaving behind caustic barbs of that unnamed foreign coach and undocumented early days of training on the seat of a scooter in Agartala. She pulled off Produnova — the front handspring double somersault in tucked position — and became only the fifth gymnast ever to do it. More importantly for Dipa and Nandi, they had finally won an international medal — a Commonwealth Games bronze.
“I knew she would do it, and I think she knew it too. She was determined,” says Nandi, before using that word again. “Ziddi ladki hai.”
His matter-of-fact recollection though papers over the fact in a sport not immune to curtailed careers and destroyed lives, Produnova remains the toughest vault to perform, and carries the highest difficulty score, or D-Score, for a reason.
“We never read much into that ‘Vault of Death’ reference. If it were that dangerous, FIG (sport’s global governing body) would have banned it,” says Dipa. A pretty naïve assessment one could say, considering the FIG – though they have not banned it – have considerably reduced the D-Score of the vault to dissuade gymnasts from risking their lives and careers. Their latest Code of Points (2017-2020) states a D-Score of 6.4 for Produnova, still the highest among vaults, but down from the previous high of 7. Simultaneously, the debate of it being the recourse of lesser gymnasts continues to float, though not as outrageously as it did before the rejigging of points.
Dipa then made it to the Rio Olympics and famously performed a near-perfect Produnova there, missing the podium by 0.15 points. In an earlier interview with Firstpost, coach Nandi had recalled the seven days that felt like “seven years” between Dipa’s qualification for the vault final and the event. The crushing pressure of expectations was the first of its kind for them, but Nandi did his best to keep the heat away from Dipa.
“Though we didn’t have much access to the Indian media in Rio, we knew that people expected a medal. My birthday fell in that seven-day window too, but it was all about practice and discipline there,” she says.
“I wept all night after that final. I was so close to a medal. There are always two ways to look at something. I don’t look it as a fourth-place finish; I know it was an opportunity lost.”
Back home, she injured her ACL soon after resuming training, and missed the Asian Championships, World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. When she returned to IG Stadium – slightly skeptical – another set of coaches, who she understandably doesn’t name, met her with their snide remarks.
“Far from motivating me, they told me and Nandi sir that my career was over. It affected me initially; I wept in the hall, wept at practice, but then decided to prove each one of them wrong. Even now, when we practice Handspring, some people tell us we are wasting our time.”
Dipa’s return though is not unprecedented. She draws inspiration from Russia’s 23-year-old, seven-time Olympic medallist Aliya Mustafina, who came back from a similar injury to win four medals at the 2012 London Olympics.
Mustafina tore her ACL in April 2011, during the European Championships in Berlin, and after missing that year’s World Championships, returned to competitions eight months later. Her fourth event on comeback was the London Olympics, and it fetched her a gold, a silver and two bronze medals.
“Look at someone like Mustafina, or Oksana Chusovitina. If these women can do it, why can’t I?”
For the uninitiated, Oksana Chusovitina, the 43-year-old Uzbek athlete, is the oldest gymnast ever to compete at the Olympics, the only female gymnast to participate in seven Olympics, and one of the few women to return to international gymnastics after becoming a mother. A multiple World Championships, European Championships, World Cup, Asian Championships and Asian Games medallist in vaults – the event that Dipa specialises in – Chusovitina won a silver at the 2014 Asian Games, and despite the stranglehold of China, Japan and Korea over the sport, continues to be a force to reckon with. Not a bad inspiration to have.
“No matter how confident you are, there is bound to be some nervousness. I was really scared at the Asian Games trials, but it went well. I am going to the Asian Games with hardly three-month preparation, while every other gymnast had two years to prepare. So yes, I can assure you that I will give my best. If it is good enough to get me a medal, I will be happy.”
It all comes down to zid then. The hours of practice, the apprehensions at Dr Joshi’s table, the realistion that Produnova can wait… everything for that zid to do well, to laugh at the face of those who have ever doubted her zeal and zid. It’s refreshing how she talks about her success, her desire to excel without any teary-eyed admissions of what it feels when the national flag goes up. In times that we live in, it could qualify as an unpalatble, anti-national admission, but for Dipa, it is also a quest to get a certain monkey off her back.
“Look, I am really fed up with finishing fourth. I think it’s the worst result for an athlete. I finished fourth at the 2014 Asian Games, fourth at the Olympics, and fourth in the balance beam event at the World Challenger Cup in Turkey recently. I think I have had enough of it,” she says with an honesty one rarely finds in Indian athletes. There are no attempts to hide her pain or mask her frustration; instead, she is happy to announce to the world that the girl who, as per her father, froze at the sight of the large, cheering home crowd at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, is a human after all.
“I am really thankful to the people who have stood by me. My coach, parents, physio, and GoSports Foundation who have really taken care of me post my injury. The reception I got upon returning from Rio was phenomenal; I was treated at par with medallists Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu. It was really heartwarming. It is now up to me to pay back and try and get a medal.” For that to happen, she will continue to run those 14 measured strides that propel her above the ordinary – six hours a day, six days a week.
Standing alongside gymnasts half her age, Oksana Chusovitina was bidding for an Olympic medal at the age of 41 years.
Dipa Karmakar looks to Russia's Aliya Mustafina for inspiration to make successful return from injury
Although Nandi has not completely ruled Dipa out of the 2018 Gold Coast event, to be held in April, he feels the Asian Games in August would be a more "realistic target".
In women's squad Dipa Karmakar topped women's trial and was named in the Indian gymnastics for the Asian Games. Rakesh Patra topped the men's trials.