IT’S seductive to be caught up in the whirl that surrounds Dipa Karmakar and her stupendous journey to become the first Indian to enter the gymnastics finals at the Olympic Games. It’s tantalising to forget the precise moment — a field of eight of the best contemporary women on the vaulting horse, all cut-throat competitors with razor-sharp focus and a greedy need to win that medal — and barter it for the warm, fuzzy story of a girl who was born flat-footed but went on to become a vault sensation.
Dipa’s giant leap isn’t complete, she continues to fly. Gazing at her is better than looking back. India needs to wait for the night of August 14 when Dipa will stromp up the runway, summon raw power to launch herself in the air and stake her claim to gymnastics’ ultimate prize. Dipa wants the country to make the metaphorical journey with her, each thudding step of the way, and like her pet move, fly into the future. It’s not called a double-front somersault for nothing.
Many in India would have made it to office on Monday morning, sleep-deprived and wondering if Dipa had made it to the final. Sunday night, on Twitter, they had cursed the broadcaster for not keeping the cameras on the lone Indian gymnast at the Olympics. Dipa, lying sixth in the standings till three-fifth of the field was done, was pushed by some seriously skilled vaulters who didn’t concede one inch just because she’s India’s first ever to fetch up. From two attempts, one of which was a clean ‘Produnova’, Dipa averaged 14.850. The dawn in India brought with it clarity and good news. Dipa had made it.
She’d been lying safe at sixth the previous evening after the third sub-division of 20 athletes each, pushed a spot down by the Chinese. Her Produnova had yielded a regulation 15.100, wherein she sprung up from a near squat the way only she does, putting judges at ease when she bounces up. The Tsukahara blipped a little when her right leg appeared to slip.
Post that, there was the long wait when coach Bisweshwar Nandi preferred sitting on the floor of the Village flat rather than pace about in nervousness. At the stadium, in the final and fifth sub-division, six gymnasts had signed up to seek qualification in the vaults final.
The Japanese started well but flattened out, a Cuban staggered close to crashing headlong into the table before the Canadians lined up. World vault finalist Brittany Rogers wouldn’t rise, but Shallon Olsen pulled off two and a half twists for 15.300, and kept it clean for her second attempt to average 14.950.
The last of Dipa’s competitors had caused plenty of anxiety back in the flat for the gymnast and her coach, though Dipa seemed to believe she’d make it — even if last. She had staked too much on this for the last two years since she unveiled the Produnova at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, to not make it count. She waited for a tick mark on the web page to confirm her status as India’s first ever event finalist at the Olympics.
Next Sunday, more drama is expected. It’s more than cut-throat out there, but the country would do well to not limit its satisfaction to just the fact that an Indian has made the finals. Karmakar would want nothing less than a medal, and has declared her intent to not sit smug just because she’s reached where she has.
For now, though, she is enjoying being among the greats and meeting the stars she looks up to. “Simon Biles (American superstar gymnast) came up to me and wished me luck to do well in the Produnova. She is like a star to me and it’s difficult to think of standing beside her. I’m so overwhelmed,” Dipa said.
Dipa is a unique talent, freakishly discovered and nurtured by a coach, and it might well be decades before any other Indian boldly decides to go for the world’s two toughest vaults and pull them off with regularity and composure.
She’s by far the most consistent of sporting performers internationally, after Sania Mirza in the last one year, medalling at Asian meets and finishing in the Top 5 at the Worlds. She averages 15.000 on the Produnova, no mean feat, and has come up to scratch on her second vault — the Tsukahara, the seamless execution gaining her global respect — for she’s not just vault’s one-trick Produnova pony, but someone who can even nail the mainstream ones.
Should the competition get tight, Dipa might have company on the Produnova with Uzbek legend Oksana, a seven-time Olympian, declaring her readiness to win a medal and counter USA’s high execution scores by topping up her own Difficulty level. Biles herself has pulled a Cheng vault out of the hat — it’s rare and she might be the only one attempting it, hitting the high scores without having to do the riskiest manoeuvre.
“It’s massive for India. We were on Olympics-centric training for only three months after qualifying. USA has been at it for five years,” said Nandi.
Dipa has passed on her SIM card to the coach, and he is effectively her window to the world. “I have told Dipa she is good. I have told her that India thinks she is the best. And now, all she needs to do is stick to what she’s been doing. On the day of the final, anything can happen. So yes, I will tell her to back herself and go in with guts.” Guts that translate to decimal delights: 15.500 and 14.900.
Dipa has divided the gymnastics world, and the Produnova might lose its repute as a beast of a vault with a high D-score of 7 by the time the next Olympics come up. Dipa will need to better all her previous attempts if she has to dream of a medal.
Yes, it is India’s moment in the sun, gymnastics’ emergence in the nation, and self-congratulations are in order as the country discovers what made Dipa one of the most followed Olympians in Rio. But this is not the time for the sentimental back story. Dipa is set to leap into the unknown — a double front somersault for the Olympics medal — and after the gloom of no medals, this is one to look out for in the future.