Mumbai/Lucknow/Chandigarh: You could spend hours picking up a cloth napkin with your toes or practising somersaults, with a break only every three hours.
The life of a young gymnast revolves around beams, mats and hoops, with no time for Twitter or Facebook, movies or parties. With few fully equipped gymnastics academies, it’s even tougher in India.
In the ‘gap hours’ between sessions, for instance, instead of resting and relaxing tense muscles, many end up having to rush off to school or college, returning just in time to resume practice in the compulsory second session.
“Parents enrol children in gymnastics classes like they enrol them in a dance or painting class. But only those who are truly passionate about the sport stick around for more than a year,” says Kshipra Joshi, 22, a former gymnast who now coaches at Mumbai’s Dharavi Sports Complex. “And for them, gymnastics becomes their life.”
Behind her, 17-year-old college student Disha Nidre has just finished a three-hour practice routine despite an ankle injury. Four other teenage girls are practising splits, somersaults and pirouettes. They’re all petite and muscular, graceful and strong, and have been practising the sport for six to seven years.
They compete and win accolades at district, national and international tournaments. In May, for instance, these five girls represented India in the 8th Senior Rhythmic Gymnastics Asian Championships held in Uzbekistan. But a shot at the Olympics, such as the one Dipa Karmakar got, is a distant dream. It would take intensive coaching, guidance through red tape and systematised backing to get to Olympic level from here.
As former gymnast Varsha Upadhye puts it: “Doing cartwheels in the name of gymnastics for fun is one thing and training for competitive tournaments quite another. In Maharashtra, barring Pune’s Balewadi centre, most other gymnastic studios are in need of an upgrade. You need at least Rs 1.5 crore to set up a good facility where vault tables and other heavy equipment can be permanently fixed with designated areas for different disciplines. Adequate infrastructure to promote gymnastics is still lacking in India.”
Maharashtra has about 15 gymnastic institutes, mainly in Mumbai, Thane, Dombivli, Pune, Marathwada, Aurangabad and Amravati, which impart training in all of five genres — artistic, in which Dipa has trained, rhythmic, which is more balletic and is characterised by floor movements, trampoline, aerobic and acrobatic.
Across the country, gymnastics hub include Patiala, Jalandhar and Amritsar in Punjab, Allahabad and Agra in Uttar Pradesh, Hyderabad in Telgana, Kolkata in West Bengal, and Agartala in Tripura.
Training and equipment varies from centre to centre, with some lacking even the basic foam landing pads.
So why do the youngsters at the local-level institutes stick with it?
“I may or may not pick up medals along the way but gymnastics is my passion, and when you love something with your whole heart, you give it 100%, despite the mad hours and risk of injury,” says Janhavi Vartak, 16.
And after their competing days are over — most gymnasts retire by their late 20s or early 30s — they plan to use their skills in related careers, like sports management, sports psychology, or as coaches, as Joshi and Upadhye have done.
The difference that equipment, guidance and focused training can make, meanwhile, is visible at the Khel Gaon Public School in Allahabad, set up and run by former national-level gymnast UK Mishra.
“Ever since I started my first small training centre in Allahabad in 1989, I had dreamed of gymnasts from there winning medals at the Olympics,” says Mishra. That dream came true when Ashish Kumar became the first Indian to win a medal in Olympics, bringing home bronze from the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010.
Among the hopefuls currently training at Khel Gaon is Vivek Mishra, 25, who has represented India in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and the 2006 Asian Games. “We are lucky to have the top-quality training and facilities that we have. This centre is run with passion and is unlike anything I have seen elsewhere in India,” he says.
It’s no wonder then that five gymnasts from Allahabad were named in the India squad for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Since Khel Gaon is a residential sports academy, training here begins at 4.30 am and ends at 7 pm.
“The aim here is for somebody from this centre to become the first Indian to win an Olympic medal,” says coach Raja Babu Yadav.
“Gymnastics has been finding more takers since Ashish’s medal, and Dipa’s achievements, whether she wins a medal or not, will give further impetus to the sport,” adds Makrand Joshi, secretary of the Maharashtra Amateur Gymnastics Association and an executive member of the Gymnastic Federation of India.
Janhavi Vartak at the Dharavi academy would agree. “Success stories like Dipa’s are what inspire us. They inspire us to never give up,” says the 16-year-old college student.
Dipa turns away and takes her spot for a solo 90-second hula hoop routine. She’s been training since he was six.
“It all depends on grooming,” says Samir Deb, former national-level gymnast and coach. “If youngsters don’t get modern facilities, it’s difficult to nurture a talented athlete. And we don’t have basic equipment to train youngsters.”