Dipa Karmakar was out of competitive action ever since she took the gymnastics world by storm with a fourth-placed finish at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She had suffered an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury soon after Rio and was out of action for almost two years, but was expected to make a comeback at the Commonwealth Games in April this year.

But when she pulled out of the Gold Coast Games at the last minute, doubts were raised about whether she would be back to peak fitness before the Asian Games or even miss the quadrennial event. After all, an ACL injury also needs a player to recover mentally and not just physically to be able to performe at their optimal level.

Late last month, Karmakar allied all these fears by topping the Asian Games selection trials in New Delhi. She then raised hopes of an entire nation on Sunday when she won the gold medal in her first international competition in two years at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Challenge Cup in Mersin, Turkey.

Faith in coach

The gold medal, India’s second in an FIG event, apart the podium-topping performance of 14.150, may not be something to crow about in the overall context of the competition she is likely to face at the Asian Games. But if one looks back at the two years since her fourth-placed finish at the Rio Olympics, this performance would be a major confidence booster for her and coach Bishweshwar Nandi.

The 24-year-old, who suffered an ACL injury in training soon after the Olympics and underwent a reconstruction surgery in April last year, had made all the right noises during her interactions with the media about making a strong comeback.

“Mentally, I was not affected. But, yes, it was very tough because I was performing well and I had to immediately drop the apparatus and only focus on rehab,” she had told journalists on the sidelines of the GoSports Foundation Conclave back in December 2017.

But those close to her were well aware of the challenges in bringing those words into reality, and the fears she would have to overcome before taking that first leap of faith.

Mind you, an ACL surgery makes the person push their pain threshold exponentially during the rehabilitation period. The injury can also keep playing at the back of your mind irrespective of the quality of rehab and the confidence-building exercise by those around you.

Karmakar began her rehab within a fortnight of going under the knife but it took her over an year to finally make those daring runs and fly off the vault in competition.

This is where, probably, Karmakar’s bond with coach Nandi came in handy. Normally, a sportsperson is eager to get back to competition to try and put behind the pain of injury and prove to themselves that they can find a way out as soon as possible.

In Karmakar’s case, she has been extremely patient. Though she had started training at the start of the year, she pulled out of the Commonwealth Games in April as her coach felt that she wasn’t ready and the player simply accepted the decision.

Sports Authority of India psychologist Bhavana Chouhan, who works with the gymnasts, admits that the coach has been a pillar of strength for the 2014 Commonwealth and Asian championship bronze medalist, and no one else is allowed to be part of that space.

It was this faith in her coach that made Karmakar a star in world gymnastics as she attempted the dangerous Produnova in Glasgow to clinch a medal four years ago. The handspring double front vault has always been considered the most dangerous routine in gymnastic circles. And when one considered that Karmakar first accepted the coach’s suggestion of working on this new routine without even having a foam pit at her training centre back home in Agartala, it simply shows the trust she had in her mentor who has been working with her since she was six years old.

Bigger challenges ahead

With the difficulty level of her favoured Produnova vault cut from 7 to 6.4, a recovering Karmakar has decided to skip the routine for a more conservative Handspring and Tsukuhara, in which execution is the key.

Karmakar, who also made it to the final of the balance beam, and Nandi would be extremely happy on that front as she crossed the 8-point mark in Turkey. It showed that the 24-year-old has completely recovered from the injury. But the real challenge for her lies in the next five weeks as the 2014 Asian Games bronze medallist would know that finishing on the podium in Jakarta won’t be an easy task.

Despite the advantage of Produnova in Incheon 2014, Karmakar had still failed to bag a medal and she may have to score close to 15.000 to finish on the podium as at least two Japanese have crossed that mark in the last one year, while a couple of Chinese gymnasts have touched 14.500 in various competitions.

It is clear that she is unlikely to risk going for the Produnova with her knee still needing some more time to settle down, as the landing in that variation puts tremendous pressure on the joints. But she would definitely increase the difficulty level in Jakarta to Handspring 540 and Tsukuhara 900 as against Handspring 360 and Tsukuhara 720 that she attempted in Turkey to win the gold medal.

Whether she can manage to pull off those routines to perfection and bag a medal in Jakarta or not, the performance in Turkey has proved that the only Indian gymnast to participate in the Olympics final is well and truly back and should be at her best by the time 2020 Tokyo Games arrive.