Biles fan Nayak hopes to make the Olympics cut
“I cried because I kept feeling that with a few more repetitions, a few more training camps, I could also have been an Asian medallist,” said Pranati Nayak.Updated: Oct 04, 2019 09:14 IST
Five feet, maybe six, separated Pranati Nayak and Swapna Barman. That was how far apart agony and ecstasy were sat that September afternoon; Nayak, the gymnast, feeling every bit the fringe player in what was an unadulterated Barman show at the eastern centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) here. Athletes like basking in reflected glory as much as finishing fourth, so as the cheers rang out for Barman, India’s first heptathlete to win an Asian Games gold, Nayak wept.
Bill Shankly, the famous Liverpool coach, had said: “If you are first, you are first. If you are second, you are nowhere.” But Nayak wept not because she and Barman lived in the same hostel, trained six days a week, eight hours a day and while one had won gold, the other was just a finalist at the Games.
“I cried because I kept feeling that with a few more repetitions, a few more training camps, I could also have been an Asian medallist,” she says as we meet nearly one year later at a restaurant not far from the SAI.
Nayak, 24, is an Asian medallist now, having won bronze in the vault at the Senior Asian Championships in Ulaanbaatar in June; the millstone of finishing fourth twice in international competitions—in 2008 as a sub-junior and in 2017—no longer around her neck. No longer would she also feel that while her friends were medallists at continental and Commonwealth events, she was merely a finalist at both.
“At the Asian Games, I was thinking too much of a medal, my mouth felt dry. I was also not comfortable with the Tsukahara (vault) 720 (degree) having started it in February. Also, ma’am was not there,” says Nayak who left home in Pingal, Midnapur, in 2003 to pursue a sport she didn’t even know was called gymnastics.
‘Ma’am’ is Minara Begum, her coach for 17 years; the lady who gave an undertaking to SAI in 2003 so that Nayak could stay in the hostel even though she was under-age (less than 10) and was a year away from her first sub-junior national gold (floor exercise). “I even had to give it in writing that she is one for the future,” says Begum sitting beside her most famous ward.
The flipside of taking Nayak’s responsibility meant Begum being called late one night in 2004 because a hostel resident had playfully lifted the child so high that her forehead hit a blade of the ceiling fan.
“She needed eight stitches,” says Begum. “Ma came next day and we both cried a bit,” says Nayak.
“Now, I can do the 720 any time of the day but things were different in Jakarta last year,” says Nayak. “There, I never thought I would be medal-worthy. I knew I had prepared well but kept asking myself whether the less difficult (Tsukahara) 360 (degrees) with a front tuck would be good enough for a medal?,” says Nayak.
On June 21, Nayak’s score of 13.384 on the vault proved good enough for her first international podium finish.
The next three months of training was all focused on the world championships, which begin October 4 in Stuttgart. Begum and Nayak worked on the Tsukahara 720 and a 540 degree front vault. “That and a changed landing at the uneven bars,” says Nayak.
While the vault stays first among equals, Nayak says she is working on the bars, floor exercise and the balance beam too. “Her all-around performance gives her the best chance to make it to the India team,” says Begum. Nayak— a fan of US gymnast Simone Biles, who won four gold and a bronze in the 2016 Olympics—works on three events every day with the fourth carried forward to the next day. “That means there are days when I have two sessions on the vault.”
Aggregating 50 over four events in Stuttgart could take her to the 2020 Olympics, says Nayak. “That would mean 12.5 points in each event. Getting that on the uneven bars would be a challenge so I am targeting 11.5 there. The vault usually fetches me 13.5 and if I get the 720 right, it could be 14. If I can increase the difficulty quotient in the floor exercise and execute the beam right, it can happen,” she says.
“If her training is any indication and she can cut out the errors, she should get there,” says Begum.