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January 21, 2018
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Daredevil Dipa rebuilds her vault gameIndia’s finest gymnast is working her way back to competition fitness with a surgically repaired knee. She will temporarily switch from ‘the vault of death’, the Produnova, to the slightly less demanding Handspring 540

Dipa Karmakar doesn’t seem to know of a world outside gymnastics. So hard-wired is it in her psyche that in spite of rupturing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and being out of competition since that Rio 2016 acme, the sport appears the only thing on her mind.

“Only those 10 days I was in the hospital I didn’t train,” she says. “Other than that, I was in the gym daily. Everybody used to practise, but I used to do my rehab — from 9 to 1 during the day and then from 5 to 8 in the evening. So I was never completely out of touch. I was out of my element, yes, but not with the gym and the apparatus.”

This degree of obsession is probably what feeds most top gymnasts’ competitive careers. Those who pursue excellence in a sport of such thin margins are in a constant battle against their imperfections; the mental game is relentless. It weighs down lesser mortals with a lower degree of perspective and no sense of detachment, but not Dipa.

“Mentally, I wasn’t affected that much,” the 24-year-old says. “But it was still tough. When this injury happened, I was at such a high level. I then had to leave everything and just focus on my rehab. But it happens. Look at Aliya Mustafina from Russia. She suffered an ACL injury in 2010, but after that, she won gold at both London 2012 and Rio 2016. So I can also come back.”

The route though will be as arduous as ever. Dipa’s stock rose after she successfully dusted off the Produnova and made it the yin thing. But now she will turn to the Handspring 540, not quite the ‘vault of death’ like the Produnova, but near enough. The switch, ahead of the Commonwealth and Asian Games, is primarily to avoid the heavy landing of the Produnova, helping protect her newly repaired knee.

To the outside world, gymnastics is one big show and people seem to take for granted the effortless ease with which the toughest of routines are executed. It doesn’t matter that danger lurks from start to finish; arrive a split-second late and the athlete might be done for life. Still, she is forced to finish with a smile.

For coach Bishweshwar Nandi, managing the expectations of a nation that has still not recovered from the high of Dipa’s Rio performance will be the toughest ask. That he never misses an opportunity to stress that they “won’t give up the Produnova” shows this. But gymnastics is an unforgiving sport and its modern-day avatar, underneath the veneer of the artistic glitz and glamour, is all about power and managing the body.

“Where was the Produnova before,” asks Nandi. “It is the most physical of vaults and it has only [come into vogue] in the last six to seven years. Now it’s the era of power gymnastics. Earlier gymnasts used to be light. The Chinese in the 1980s used to be 42-45kg. Now, most weigh more than 50 (kg). Age is less of a factor. More and more gymnasts are older than 25. The difficulty level has increased and there is more competition, but there is no reason why Dipa can’t do it at 24.”

There appears to be an air of inevitability about the vaults Nandi has chosen for her. According to Nandi, the Produnova and the Handspring 540 rank one and two in terms of toughness, but when well-managed, can be high-scoring. Another of her earlier vaults was the Tsukahara 720 (double twist). Before Rio, they even tried to accomplish the Tsukahara 900 (two and a half twists) before abandoning it.

“She has that winning mentality to do such tough vaults,” Nandi says. “A high-level athlete, on an average, practises for six hours. For Dipa it goes even to eight hours. She has that fire. It is very high. We need more. I even try and increase it. But the important thing is to route that energy into her practice. Produnova is not difficult for her. Whenever she has done it, she has had a perfect landing.”

“I believe in hard work,” says Dipa with glee. “Everything else comes next. We come from Tripura and we chose a sport not many even knew. We had to travel to Delhi for training. For 12 years, we just practised with Indian equipment. So I have reached here only because of hard work.” In contrast, Simone Biles, the American lodestar who beat Dipa in the vault in Rio, trained in a 52,000 square-foot state-of-the art gym, ten minutes from her house.

Yet, Dipa manages to present a youthful lack of inhibition. The psychology of a gymanast is, in fact, fascinating. Like a child at play, they can perform only when they forget that they are being watched. And this requires 100% concentration. “You can’t compare this to any game,” says Nandi. “Whatever we teach them has to be executed perfectly. Not more not less, but exact. From the practice to the competition, it has to be the same. Even a slight drop, you let you mind wander, you will fall.”

That Dipa has successfully managed this is arguably her biggest achievement. Her accomplishments until Rio — there were quite of few of them — largely went unnoticed, for gymnastics was never a discipline in which Indians were emotionally invested. And when they finally were, she didn’t disappoint.

Now as she gears up for the first of the two challenges this year — the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, starting in April — there is a quiet confidence. “I haven’t said that I definitely want to go [to Australia],” she says. “I have only started training now and sir [Nandi] will decide. But I don’t want to go there as a tourist. I want to go there to give a good performance.”

THE HANDSPRING 540 EXPLAINED

What is a handspring?

It’s a manoeuvre which involves using the hands to ‘spring’ from a base (floor, vault, etc.) into the air, and eventually back into an upright position.

What is the Handspring 540?

It’s a move comprising one-and-a-half front somersaults (one somersault = 360 degrees). The gymnast leaps from the board onto the vault, handsprings into an aerial 540, including a twist, and lands feet first, facing the vault.

How different is it from the Produnova?

The Produnova, which is also a forward handspring routine, involves two full somersaults (720 degrees) compared to one-and-a-half in the Handspring 540. The landing after the Produnova has the gymnast facing away from the vault.

How risky is it?

Not as risky as the Produnova, but, according to Dipa’s coach Bishweshwar Nandi, it is the second toughest move to pull off after the Produnova.