The Kolkata weather can be unforgivably hot and humid. Inside Sports Authority of India (SAI) indoor training centre in Salt Lake, it is doubly so. A few fans are kept on the sides, providing the only ventilation. It is not much but the individuals inside, practising on the mat, cannot be too concerned. Under their eagle-eyed coaches, they begin their routine, trying to perfect the leap as well as possible. An inch here and there could prove the difference between a medal and a fourth place finish.
Dressed in black, 21-year-old Pranati Nayak is among them. She is beginning her stretching exercises, having just returned from her home in Medinipur around 150 km away. She’s come back a little late – back home, she was being treated like a celebrity with local politicians queuing up to felicitate her. Back here though, none of that celebrity status matters. Under the watchful eyes of her long-term coach Minara Begum, a former gymnast herself, she begins a routine which she has long perfected.
“I was so close. I wish I had got the medal for my country,” she told Scroll.in on the sidelines after she finished practice. On May 21, she finished in fourth place in Vault final at the Asian Championships in Thailand. Her coach Minara tells me Pranati’s lack of celebration at a fourth-place finish isn’t unprecedented. “She’s ziddi. That’s the main factor that has led to her coming this far”
Indian gymnastics arrived on the world stage after Dipa Karmakar’s heroics at the Rio Olympics last year. The girl from Tripura vaulted her way into the limelight at the biggest stage of them all with a fourth place finish in the women’s vault final. Unfortunately, Karmakar sustained a knee injury and could not participate in the Thailand meet.
Despite that blow, India put up a creditable performance in the tournament. In the women’s team, Nayak finished fourth in the Vault final, Aruna Reddy finished sixth. In the men’s categories, Odisha’s Rakesh Patra finished in eighth place in the final in the Rings event.
‘There is hope in Indian gymnastics now’
In fact, for a sport which has two competing factions running it without an official Nationals event being held for more than two years now, it is a remarkable feat.
“There is hope in Indian gymnastics now,” says Joy Chakraborty, the gymnastics coach who accompanied the team to Thailand. “Compared to how things were, there has been steady improvement. The chance of more medals at the upcoming 2018 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games is an extremely realistic one now.”
Apart from Karmakar, Nayak will be one of the Indian gymnasts leading that challenge. Dulal Karmakar, Dipa’s father, called Nayak the No 2 gymnast in India after his daughter, in an interaction with Scroll.in.
Nayak’s journey started when she was in Class 3 when one of her coaches introduced her to gymnastics during the scheduled tiffin breaks in her school. The young girl was good at it, but the journey ahead would be significant. At the age of eight or nine, she would travel all the way from Medinipur to Kolkata’s SAI complex. Her mom or dad brought her there on a Monday and they would return on Saturdays.
Vaulting from Medinipur to glory
This went on before Nayak’s current coach Minara Begum ensured that Nayak would get a place in the SAI hostel. Even that had a caveat.
“I managed to convince the deputy director of SAI to give Nayak a place in the hostel. But the condition was that she had to give results within six months”, remembered Minara. “Within a few months, she was first in the state selection of the Sub Junior Nationals and then she won gold in Floor Exercise at the Chandigarh Nationals. After that, we never looked back.”
At the age of 13 , Nayak travelled to Yakutia in Russia to participate in the Children of Asia Games where she qualified for the final in the Vault and the Floor Exercises apparatus. That kickstarted her international journey and has taken her to where she is now.
“I don’t remember the number of medals I’ve won nationally,” she says, when quizzed. “But national onek hoyeche [I’ve won enough nationals]. Now, I want to win on the international stage to show I’ve managed to do something. The World Championships are coming up, I will have to raise my level, but I am firmly focused on the 2018 Commonwealth Games”.
Fighting personal tragedy
The other finalist in the final was Hyderabad’s Aruna Reddy who finished sixth in the same Vault. Unlike Nayak, Reddy’s beginning in sports wasn’t through gymnastics.
“I was a black belt in karate when I started,” the 22-year-old told Scroll. “My karate trainer first brought me into gymnastics. At first, I wasn’t very interested. It was so difficult. I used to cry every day. Stretching 5-10 minutes every day was painful.”
In 2005, Reddy won her first National medal which convinced her that gymnastics was her forte. “My parents were very supportive. They let me continue doing this. That was a big help.”
But personal tragedy struck her in 2010 when her father passed away. She was heartbroken. “He was my backbone,” says Reddy. “I wanted to quit. I didn’t see any point in doing gymnastics anymore. My father was everything. Without him, doing this didn’t have any meaning”
For a couple of months, the young girl stopped. But finally she returned to the gymnastics mat. “My family, especially my brother-in-law convinced me. He told me ‘This is your father’s dream’. You can handle this. And I came back to gymnastics again.”
Four years later, Reddy finished in 14th place at the qualification round of the Vault apparatus at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and followed it up with an even better ninth place finish at the Asian Games.
Flushed after her showing at the Asian Championships, Reddy is now working on improving her execution score to ensure that her chances of a medal only improve.
And she is clear about the fact that the impasse in the association has had a negative impact.
“For us seniors, we still have tournaments to compete in. But what about those at the sub-junior and the junior levels? If they do not get competitions, they will lose interest,” she said.
On his part, Riyaz Bhati, the current vice-president of the federation, assures that they are trying their best. “We will try and send our gymnasts to many competitions as possible,” he told Scroll.in. “Yes, there have been issues but we are hopeful the impasse will be sorted. The Indian Olympics Association has backed us. The target is the 2020 Olympics and we are trying to ensure that the gymnasts do not get affected”
Following in Ashish’s footsteps
In 2010, Ashish Kumar from Allahabad broke a jinx of sorts when he won India’s first gymnastic medal at the Commonwealth Games, winning a silver and bronze. He followed it up that year by winning India’s first and till now only medal in the sport, a bronze, at the Asian Games.
Ashish Kumar’s feat had many inspired, including Rakesh Patra from Puri in Odisha. Six years later, a stroke of luck would lead to another gigantic step for India in the gymnastics world. Dipa Karmakar had been put on second reserve (26th) for the Olympics gymnastics Test event in Rio but had sneaked through after some withdrawals. The rest, of course, is history; Karmakar qualified for the Olympics and made the nation proud with a resounding performance in Rio.
Patra was also 25th on the reserves list for the men’s competition. Unfortunately for him, no one withdrew and he could not make the cut. That has only, though, served to make his desire to prove himself stronger. At the Asian Championships, Patra took the first step in that regard, qualifying for the final on the Rings apparatus and finishing eighth in the final.
“Yes, things have improved [in Indian gymnastics],” said the 25-year-old. “But not to that level.” He explained his point: “Every gymnast needs to understand where he’s going wrong. Unfortunately, for us, we don’t have the luxury of cameras recording our training routines. I use my phone camera to record myself. Obviously, it’s not the best…I can’t always make out what angle I’m landing at. These are small things, but they matter.”
‘A little support will go a long way’
He acknowledges the hardships he and fellow Indian gymnasts go through. “We used to make our own grips,” he shrugged. “Support has increased, but we need more. And mostly at the lower levels, at the grassroots.”
It’s a sentiment which one of his fellow gymnasts Abhijeet Kumar from Allahabad agrees with. “A little bit of support will go a long way,” says the 20-year-old, who was also in the men’s team in Thailand. “Our country’s gymnasts need to participate in international competitions. It is only when you participate in international competitions that you understand your level, understand what the world is doing and learn accordingly”
It comes down to the same problem. The impasse in India’s current gymnastics federation means that it is the Sports Authority of India on whom the responsibility for running the game falls. The government body has managed to send teams to a few tournaments. But more is required.
“India doesn’t have a shortcoming of gymnastics talent,” says Kumar. “But how will you do ensure that the young talent is kept in the system? That they don’t go out? If we can sort that, India will take giant steps in this sport.”