Dipa Karmakar will be challenging death to win India a medal at Olympics

Her Produnova vault is so difficult that only five people have performed it successfully so far.

 |  6-minute read |   09-08-2016
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Dipa Karmakar had already scripted history, having become the first Indian women gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, when the insatiable quest for perfection drove her to put her life at risk to get India an entry into the women's gymnastics vaults finals.

The vault she performed to secure a place in the final is known as Produnova, after the Russian gymnast Elena Produnova, who first landed it in 1999. It involves a front handspring and two front sommersaults. It's said to be among the most difficult feats in gymnastics.

Before the feat too, the story of the four-feet-eleven-inch tall Tripura girl who turned 23 on Tuesday (August 9), is one of awe-inspiring fearlessness, daring and success against all odds with a determination that seems other-worldly.

Also read: [Proud day] Dipa Karmakar first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for Olympics

Her tale is one of many firsts and of constantly breaching the ceiling of what one can possibly achieve.

produnova_080916100633.jpg Various stages of the Produnova manoeuvre. 

Since 2007, Dipa has won 77 medals, 67 of them gold, at various competitions from state-level to international. It includes bronze in the Hiroshima Asian Championships in 2015 and Glasgow Commonwealth Games the year before and a fifth place finish in World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in 2015.

Thus extending the realm of the possible is not something that surprises you if it comes from Dipa. Still, when she performed the vault at the most prestigious of all sporting events, it felt out of this world for the following reasons:

1. Termed the death vault for being among the riskiest manoeuvres in gymnastics history

Produnova has been termed by The Wall Street Journal as the death vault as every time a gymnast dares to do it, s/he not only risks being paralysed, but also puts his/her life at risk. Even a small error can lead to an end to more than just the athlete's career.

Star US gymnast Simone Biles says someone could get killed trying to pull it off and Dipa is fully aware of it. But the risk of the feat is too small before the courage of the girl whose height misleads many. It's this courage that, more than anything else, seems out of this world.

Also read: Why Salman Khan should be forgiven for mistaking Dipa Karmakar for Deepika

The following video shows exactly how difficult the Produnova manoeuvre is and how dangerous it is to effect:

2. Dipa is one of the five gymnasts who have successfully completed the Produnova

The feat is so difficult that only five people have performed it successfully so far. So difficult is the vault that its performer has a 7.0 D score, thereby automatically securing more points than the performer of other manoeuvres. Still very few dare to attempt it.

Biles holds the record for most gold medals for a woman gymnast in the history of the world championships. Yet she has chosen not to do the Produnova which would have undoubtedly given her more advantage. This is what her team and she had to say on not opting for the manoeuvre. When US gymnast Laurie Hernandez was asked about the Produnova recently after practice, her coach, Maggie Haney, interjected: "We'll never do it."

"No, thanks," Hernandez agreed.

Biles put it another way: "I'm not trying to die," she told The New Yorker magazine earlier this year, referring to the Produnova.

And yet it was reported that Dipa had done the vault 1,000 times in her practice for the Olympics in the last three months. What athletes shiver to perform even in the Olympics, Dipa has been doing regularly. This risk-taking makes her achievement stand out.

3. The Olympic feat came only with three months to prepare

Dipa secured a ticket to Rio only at the last minute.

Last year, she had initially failed to secure a berth at Rio owing to a fifth place finish at the world championships. But she got a second chance when the Gymnastics Federation of India came to her aid by sending her for the test event which was the final qualifying event for Rio.

She made full use of the opportunity and struck gold in it. But having qualified only in April, Dipa was racing against time.

dipa-embed_080916100702.jpg Dipa Karmakar. 

While other gymnasts have been preparing for Rio for years, Dipa got only three months to get things together for the Olympics. And yet, despite the short time she got to prepare, she pulled off the death-defying vault successfully.

4. Flat-footedness couldn't stop Dipa

As a child, Dipa had flat feet which makes her achievements even more extraordinary. Flat foot is a condition in which the arch of the foot is depressed and the sole of the foot is almost completely in contact with the ground. Having flat feet makes it difficult to run or walk because of the stress placed on the ankles.

Nature had intrigued against her but since when have steely resolve surrendered to nature? Dipa conquered her physical difficulty with her resolve and hard work. She not just became a gymnast, which is the last thing a person with flat feet would dream of; she also aced its toughest manoeuvre.

5. Dipa conquered odds like poor facilities and a lack of culture for gymnastics

The odds that Dipa conquered were not just biological or of shortage of time, her rise as a gymnast has been also against odds like inadequate facilities, absence of a proper support system and a culture where gymnastics is practically never heard of and in fact is looked down upon.

The government doesn't offer a lot of support to gymnastics, and Dipa came from a humble background. In her first gymnastics competition, Dipa competed without shoes and borrowed an oversized, ill-fitting costume. Until the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, she had been practising and competing on irregular-sized landing mats (10cm as against the norm of 30cm).

The society's approach to gymnastics is a big challenge. As Dipa has said, her goal is to make people realise that gymnastics is not circus. Perhaps a greater awareness of the incredible feat she has pulled off may ensure that gymnastics becomes more popular among the future generations in India.

In such a difficult environment Dipa has gone ahead and achieved something, which, medal or no medal, has secured her a place in the history of gymnastics in India and the world. The many odds against which the bright star has risen makes one believe that not just her vault but she too is rare and unique, who has made India proud.


Apoorva Pathak Apoorva Pathak

The author is alumni, IIT Roorkee and writes on politics, economy, policy.

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