Tanchon is a tiny corner of a port city. Hong un-Jong was born in that non-descript part of the oft-dreaded enigma that is North Korea into a low income family. Kim Chun-Pil, a famous male gymnast from DPRK cooked chicken and rabbit soup so that he could quieten a rather homesick Hong, who was coached by him far away from her home and often cried nights on end and ruckused about wanting to run away home from training. Hong was mighty talented – and would go onto win the 2008 Beijing Games vault gold medal, before being suspended for a controversy involving her sister of age fudging by her country, missing from the London Olympics.
At Rio, her selfie with a South Korean athlete went viral. And murmurs had started that should Hong not end up winning a medal, she would be packed off to the coal mines by the miffed North Korean leader – South Koreans obviously taking to social media to spice up the intrigue.
In the middle of all this, Hong un-Jong was attempting to storm gymnastics’ next big citadel: a triple twisting Yurchenko, a never-tried-before vault.
Of triple T and triple twists
When Tripura settles down from its excitement over watching their girl – Indian Dipa Karmakar (born Agartala, trained in Delhi), and the whole country looks ahead to what the wonder-woman, tumbling in the air would do next, it would be interesting to find out how tiny Tanchons and Tripuras, shape the gymnastics graphs of the sport’s top-most athletes.
Simone Biles, the American who won gold on Sunday, has a rough back-story of being in foster care owing to her mother’s drug and alcohol addiction before she was adopted by her grandparents in Texas.
But here were three girls — who had over the period of these last 10 days, acquired for themselves striking stories that went beyond Tanchon, Tripura and Texas.
The Yurchenko, the Produnova and the Cheng vaults – those wonderful acknowledgements of past perfectionists – rolled off gushing tongues on the day of the vault finals, and had taken prominence over all else at the arena that was built high and mighty to watch women take off without flapping wings.
The triple twisting Yurchenko first up. The North Korean was returning to the big stage after the forced suspension – no fault of hers really – but there had been not a complaining murmur from her on being kept away from her favourite vaulting table. She was back to challenge the American favourite though, armed with a new flying weapon: she was intending to launch herself into the most advanced version of the Yurchenko.
Typically, a gymnast goes in with a roundoff-back handspring entry onto the springboard, followed by a back handspring onto the vault. The following salto is where the variation kicks in – after the routine two-and-half-twists off the table, Hong had huddled into training to add one more twist. The North Korean’s first vault had been a Cheng — a hat-tip to a Chinese gymnast Cheng Fei, and Hong had beaten the local girl on whom the vault was named for the medal in Beijing.
The Cheng vault had always given Hong the advantage over American Biles owing to its high Difficulty – until Simone Biles decided to go for the Cheng herself to up her ante in scores earlier in 2016. Russian Maria Paseka would quickly follow to try to level things, as the girls pushed each other to top their skills – adding a twist here and a half-turn there.
Vault was hotting up, and the North Korean was onto the Triple Yurchenko to combine with her own Cheng – though the tripe-turn Yurchenko had never ever been performed internationally.
Hong, who went in first on the table, started with her Cheng and while her body piked a tad in the air, she wound up tucking her legs in the last twist to land chest down a little and falter a step back. It was still an impressive 15.400 – a good confidence boost ahead of her new unveiling.
On the triple-Yu, she would twist exceptionally fast in the air but her feet landed after three-and-quarter twists, her body lagging behind awkwardly. Hong would fall back, as her ambitious attempt got devalued to an Amanar (a family of vaults) — scoring 14.400 to average 14.900.
Next up was Shallon Olsen – a 16-year-old Canadian who had turned up in the last sub-division of qualification, and almost dumped Dipa Karmakar out of the finals. The Olympics was one of her first few international senior meets after she became eligible only this year.
She would stick to the tried and tested. An Amanar, where she was solid in air despite her legs crossing, though she would land with a few steps stumble (14.966). She would go for the Khorkina (14.666) next, good in the air, though landing with her chest down and close to sticking it, averaging 14.816.
The grand dame
Following the teen, was the grand dame of gymnastics — 41 year old Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan, sandwiched between the pair of 16 year olds (she was followed by the Chinese Wang Yan).
Chusovitina was on her 7th Olympics with giant ambition of giving the young girls a run for their money. She’d gone the whole hog in gymnastics over a long career spread across multiple countries, and found rare inspiration in the Indian Karmakar.
The Produnova makes it very difficult for its practitioner to look elegant, given the gymnast has to balance safety with sticking a landing and looking stylish. The tall Elena Produnova pulled off the perfect ones a couple of times internationally, and looked magnificent, but Oksana would cowboy in the air (feet not together and as if astride) and land super low and forward, flipping her way out of trouble for a score of 14.933.
It was an enlightening moment – to realise just how consistent Karmakar has gotten at its execution, given she’s never flipped in the top 6 internationals she’s been in.
The Uzbeki would then proceed to a Tsukahara double twist (the same vault as Dipa, with order reversed), but show the Indian how it’s done in the air though she would land a tad under-spun and take a large step out of bounds to steady herself, averaging 14.833.
Wang Yan – who made those little hearts in smiling celebration, and looked littler than 16 (she’s been thoroughly checked for under-age), would mimic Oksana in her first vault (again, another exhibition for Dipa).
Rotating perfectly, she would land well but lacked both height and distance taking a large step back. Her next one – the Handspring Rudi – would see her land alright but hop a tiny bit forward for 14.999 to jump into the lead.
There was the extremely elegant Giulia Steingruber — she has proven that traditional vaults done to perfection can trump the high-risk ones, given her grace and finesse. The Swiss would get a lot of height off the table, and land well save for a hop on her Rudi – a 15.533, a top score that Karmakar desires oh her Produnova achieved due to seamless execution on a lesser difficult jump. She would get a lot of air on the orthodox Yurchenko, but pike down and hop to tally 15.216 average and put herself into medal bracket immediately.
Dipa’s Tsukahara would look like a clear work-in-progress — her feet separated on pre-flight, though she would glue them together for a 14.866. Having chosen her lesser practiced vault as her first, the Indian would manage the intensity needed to get going on one half of her routine.
When the moment came — that is said to have flickered across TV sets across India and brought tears and awe and goosebumps – here was Dipa Karmakar, up against the very best countries in gymnastics.
Her poise will remain as the abiding memory. On a day that India’s greatest women athletes had crumbled on badminton and tennis courts, Dipa Karmakar stayed calm and poised. If you want a life-target at 22, it should be Dipa Karmakar’s immense self-confidence and poise.
The Produnova went off smoothly – that is to say, no one would wince in fear of her breaking her spine. She would make it look everyday, mundane, normal, safe. She would cowboy alright, and theer was a large knee bend on landing, but she was definitely feet first for another 15-plus score as she jumped to No 2 in standings.
The American and the Russian would go on with the same two vaults – Maria Paseka facing pre-flight trouble on her Cheng that affected her landing. On the Amanar, Paseka would land mid-mat to be top of the table.
The stage was set for Biles – going for her third gold medal this Olympics. A beast on the Floor Exercise, she had been beaten in the past on the Vault, but not here, not today. The Amanar was perfect – she whipped through the high air, and the Cheng would give her the highest score of 16.033. That was excellence flying in the air, and landing on its feet – all round. In that Karmakar of India was right up there, not just a girl beating poor facilities and no history of her country. But beating some of the best routines of gymnastics, and matching others who were to be seen to be believed.