Dipa Karmakar is just back from Rio, having qualified for the Rio 2016 Olympics and following that up with a gold medal. She’s on a high, but also understandably exhausted. Assailed by TV cameras right after her arrival in India and moving from one press conference to another, the 22-year-old, who just made history for the nation, is finally home – but has not had a moment’s rest.
“Thank you so much,” she says, when I congratulate her. Her voice sounds tired, but happy, and there’s a twinkle in it regardless. She’s speaking as she sits through traffic, with car horns blaring in the background of her vehicle, and it’s a strain for her to hear me.
But the thrill is unmistakeable. “Main bahut hi khush hoon, par tired” she says. “I’m extremely happy. Tired.”
Her longtime coach, Mr. BS Nandi, takes over. “We haven’t slept in 48 hours,” he says. “Airport to press conference after press conference, then we went to the Sports Authority of India and met the Director-General.”
It’s been a busy couple of days for both. Neither has slept a wink since they flew back from Rio, where Dipa’s Olympic trials were held. She has become the first Indian female gymnast to ever qualify for the Olympic Games, a glass ceiling that needed to be broken – which she broke with aplomb.
It did not take long for the young Dipa to find her stride in her career. She started gymnastics very young, led by a sportsman father – Mr. Karmakar is a weightlifting coach. She trained with a coach named Seema – an acquaintance of her father – in her early days.
Seema spotted Karmakar’s latent talent straightaway, and although she began teaching the youngster the basics of the sport, she recognized that Dipa would need training far more intensive than what she would be able to provide. Seema then referred Karmakar to her current coach, BS Nandi, who took her on and has coached her ever since.
Karmakar was born with flat feet, and that made matters difficult for the athletic youngster. It took her two years of intensive corrective therapy to overcome the issue, but she is now okay.
But she lives a strict, regimented life still. Karmakar has serious restrictions on what she can and cannot eat. Not allowed the snacks most people her age enjoy regularly, Karmakar has to have a diet rich in meat, healthy food, nothing fried – nothing a young twenty-something might enjoy on a regular day.
She's also an academic
Dipa enjoys her studies. Obviously, being a full-time athlete and one now headed to the Olympic Games, she has her occasional difficulties balancing the two.
But she has been managing, and managing ably. Coach Nandi says that significant assistance has made life much easier for the pair.
“We met with the Director General of the Sports Authority of India yesterday,” he says. “They have been extremely supportive of our needs, of what Dipa requires, providing significant assistance in every way.”
He mentions, however, that they will wait a few years before ultimately taking a call on Dipa’s future. “We will take a decision whether to eventually move abroad to pursue her career, her gymnastics full-time,” he says, in what is perhaps a nod to the superior facilities available abroad.
It’s a sentiment many have echoed, among them Indian gymnast Simran Redij, who in a conversation with us last year described how dumbfounded she was at the staggering equipment and facilities available to foreign athletes at a gymnastics meet in Kolkata.
What’s something the general public doesn’t know about Dipa? Her coach takes over answering that – and he’s laughing.
“She’s stubborn. If she wants something, she will get it however she can. She’ll try hard, work towards it and sometimes, if all else fails, the tears might just come out.”
Her tenacious nature has obviously stood her in good stead: refusing to give up early on in her life, she fought to make it in gymnastics – and now, of course, she’s hit the pinnacle many athletes dream of – qualifying for the Olympics.
It’s a level that requires an immense commitment – a lot of time and a lot of work. It also entails a lot of sacrifices – sleep, a social life, most aspects of normal life that many take for granted. But Dipa’s stubbornness and perseverance have obviously paid off.
Breaking the glass ceiling
Karmakar herself is modest despite the fact that she has just broken a barrier – and shown young Indian women that it is possible to pursue gymnastics. Her coach, one of her biggest, most crucial supporters, stresses on just how important it is that people notice her achievements.
“People need to see, need to understand gymnastics can be done. Yes, it does not have much attention, there is not as much focus. But Dipa has pushed, persevered and she has done it. And others can do so too if they work. It is not impossible.”
It may not be impossible, but it’s certainly difficult to be an athlete of Dipa’s calibre. She’s one of only five women in gymnastics history to have landed the famously difficult Produnova vault in competitition – and has the highest score of all of them.
A strong contender for this year’s games, Dipa Karmakar, the first ever Indian woman to qualify for the Olympics in gymnastics, heads to Rio de Janeiro ahead of the games in August – living her dreams, and carrying the hopes of several Indians with her.
We wish her good luck.
Translation to Bengali courtesy Soumalya Moitra