Dipa Karmakar is 25% short of perfection in the Produnova, considered the riskiest vault in gymnastics. Behind the 75% she has mastered and everything else she has achieved as a gymnast are a host of people – right from her parents to her school headmistress and an invisible hand from Haryana.
Dipa, 22, became the toast of the nation after becoming the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, considered the Holy Grail of sporting excellence.
But the youngster is the just the latest among several youngsters from Tripura in the country’s remote Northeast to excel in gymnastics, not among the most popular sport in India.
Though the credit for grooming Dipa as a world class athlete is given to Biseshwar Nandi, the man who made Tripura synonymous with gymnastics is Dalip Singh, an Army physical instructor from Haryana’s Mahendragarh district.
Nandi was among hundreds of gymnasts trained by Singh, who arrived in Agartala in 1965 as a coach deputed by the Patiala-based National Institute of Sports.
That year, Bharat Kishore Debbarman became Tripura’s first to win a gymnastics gold at the national championship.
“Tripura’s journey to gymnastics glory with Dipa has to be credited to Dalipji. He was a fountain of inspiration, a legend who had unconventional ideas that helped overcome hurdles,” said Manik Saha, founder vice-president of Tripura Gymnastics Association.
Former gymnast Balaram Shil, now a deputy inspector general of CRPF, recalled how Singh used to purchase logs and shape them into parallel bars for training, or gather grass to help his trainees land relatively safely.
Tripura has only three Arjuna award winners, all gymnasts -- Montu Debnath (1975), Kalpana Debnath (2000) and Dipa (2015).
For 21 years since 1968, Tripura’s gymnasts swept the sub-junior, junior and senior national championships. Singh’s death in 1987 changed all that.
Niyoti Debnath, who as physical instructor spotted Dipa’s talent when she was just a second-grader, blames it on the “job flood” in the 1980s.
“All athletes got jobs in far-flung schools, in the armed forces, railways and there was hardly anyone left to train the next crop of gymnasts properly,” said Debnath, Tripura’s first woman gymnast.
But Nandi stayed put to train Dipa.
Dipa’s mother Gouri attributes her daughter’s success to her dedication, discipline and coach Nandi’s unwavering attention to details. Dipa is also lucky to have a weightlifter Dulal Karmakar as her father, a mother who understands a sportsperson’s needs, and relatives who are into one sport or the other.
“We let her do what she wanted to do, but there are many others responsible for what she is today,” the father said.
One of them is Shobhana Dutta, who retired a few years ago as headmistress of Dipa’s school. She let Dipa practice after attending only four out of seven periods every day, and miss exams if the schedule clashed with her exams.
Then there’s the inspiration Dalip Singh, whose house in Ujan Abhaynagar is barely 50 metres from the Karmakars’ two-storey building on a 1,600 sq ft plot.
“It feels good that Tripura’s future in gymnastics has not forgotten the past. My husband was the spirit behind many a gymnast, but it needs a spirited person like Dipa to attain new heights,” said pathologist Salam Susheela, Singh’s widow. Hailing from Manipur, she married Singh after meeting him in Agartala in 1968.
A modest Dipa, however, said she still has have “miles to go”.
“I have 25% more to go for a perfect Produnova. I will train hard 22-23 times a day after I reach Delhi to train for Rio,” Dipa said.
For coach Nandi the job is not finished yet as he has already indentified eight gymnasts with skills to be champions. He is keen to pass on whatever he learnt from the master of them all, Dalip Sir.
“Whatever I am today is because of my guru. I have just added value to the skills acquired from him to train Dipa,” Nandi said.