How Dipa Karmakar vaulted into the heart of a nation

For a celebrated gymnast, it is surprising to note that Dipa Karmakar started out with flat feet.

But through the years, the little girl from Agartala from the tiny state of Tripura, India grew so much in stature that she left a lasting impression on her nation.

Karmakar’s resilience was first seen when she was six years old. Blessed with an encouraging father - a weightlifting coach - and her own coach, she struggled on despite her obvious impediment.

Her solution was to dedicate herself to practice. Flat-footedness and gymnastics aren’t exactly a match so for Karmakar, the effort needed was a lot more. But her rewards were greater as well.

As she persevered, arches developed in her feet and the results started tipping her way.

At the age of just nine, she announced her arrival by becoming the champion of the 2002 NorthEast Games followed by appearances in many regional competitions. In 2007, she won the Junior Nationals and that served as a catalyst to vault her even further.

Dipa Karmakar at the 2010 Asian Games in China
Dipa Karmakar at the 2010 Asian Games in ChinaDipa Karmakar at the 2010 Asian Games in China

Onwards and upwards

From there, she eventually made it to the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in Delhi. Between 2010 and 2014, she continued to impress by bagging five national championships, winning five gold medals each in the Jharkhand and Kerala National Games editions.

All her efforts eventually culminated in a medal, a bronze in the 2014 edition of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

It was here that she began to work on the Produnova vault began that led her to becoming the first Indian woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal for gymnastics.

Comprising two somersaults which is incredibly difficult to execute, the Produnova has the highest difficulty rating at 7.0. Also known as the "vault of death", the move can guarantee almost-certain victory should the athlete pull it off faultlessly.

Daring Dipa

Karmakar has always been tenacious; from overcoming her flat-footedness to mastering a precarious move.

She was introduced to the Produnova just three months before the 2014 Commonwealth Games but that was enough for her to take it in her stride and step on the podium in Glasgow.

Fast forward to 2016, the stage was now set in Rio de Janeiro.

India’s Olympic medal hopes were hanging on Karmakar, the first Indian gymnast at the Olympic Games in 52 years and the first ever female from India to make an appearance in the sport.

With the weight of the nation on her shoulders at Rio 2016, all eyes were on Karmakar during the vault competition. She was going for the Produnova.

As she accelerated and launched off the springboard, a nation of a billion held its breath.

Karmakar, only the fifth woman to successfully land the Produnova, narrowly missed the podium as her landing wasn’t what she had aimed for.

She scored 15.066. Simone Biles from USA took gold that day with a 15.966, Maria Paseka got a silver around her neck for Russia with 15.253, and Swiss Giulia Steingruber received a bronze with a 15.216.

However, her score of 15.066 was good enough for fourth place.

A courageous and highly credible performance amid such exalted company.

Accolades galore

Karmakar earned the admiration and adulation of everyone back home for her efforts.

Yet for the 25-year-old the desire to do better, to strive for more was still at the forefront of her mind.

"I apologise for not being able to fulfil the dream and expectations of the people of my country and my tiny state which supported me always," she said.

"I only promise that in the next Olympics in Tokyo, I would bring laurel for you. This is my promise and I would work hard for it."

Karmakar was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award for her display and in 2017 was conferred the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India by the then President Pranab Mukherjee.

Dipa had left her footprint in Indian sporting history.

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