While the majority of millennials are busy dodging the congested lanes of Mumbai on a weekday morning to arrive at their multistoreyed office spaces, a group of young athletes huddles up to break their sweat and strive to fine-tune their vault and balance beam skills in a dimly lit basement of a gated community.
For gymnastics Head Coach Harish Parab, the day usually begins during the wee hours before the mayhem sets off in the bogeys of Mumbai locals. Harish, with a contagious yet pleasant smile in the corner of his face, reaches the Prabodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul (PTKS) in Vile Parle East to make sure every student who has enrolled themselves in gymnastics training is getting the desired attention.
“There are around 500 students who train here in the morning and the evening batches and I, with 22 other coaches make sure each one of them gets individual attention,” says Harish to The Bridge.
Established in 1998, the PTKS academy was a brainchild of the late Dr. Ramesh Prabhu, former Mayor of the Mumbai city, who had a vision of fuelling an athlete’s dream of winning the coveted Olympic medal.
He has been associated with the Prabhodhankar Thackeray Krida Sankul for the past eight years and every day is a new challenge for him to build gymnasts from their foundation. After all, the basics matter the most, and if you are starting at an early age, then you have the potential to be the next Dipa Karmakar or an Aruna Reddy.
Dipa’s feat in the 2016 Rio Olympics has brought a sea change in the way India has perceived gymnastics. From being referred to as a mere entertainment in the circus to hosting the inaugural edition of an indigenous Gymnastics League, the sport is seeing a rejigged enthusiasm around it.
Harish, who had been a gymnastics coach for the past three decades, insists PTKS has become a home for him as he feels it is the one academy in Mumbai that only indulges into the well-being of sports and alongside the welfare of athletes.
Established in 1998, the PTKS academy was a brainchild of the late Dr Ramesh Prabhu, former Mayor of the Mumbai city, who had a vision of fuelling an athlete’s dream of winning the coveted Olympic medal. He couldn’t see his dream turn true but had been successful in passing the baton to his son, Dr Arvind Prabhu, the present President of the academy, who is trying his best to give a fitting tribute to his father.
The hall where dreams are nurtured.
PTKS is popular in the suburb of Vile-Parle for its Olympic-standard swimming pool, and the authorities have taken serious efforts to prepare athletes in five sporting disciplines – swimming, gymnastics, judo, diving and shooting. “We have a responsible group of trustees; the academy has been cultivating not only sports but the actual science behind it. I have worked with various academies in and around Mumbai, but I believe PTKS has given me all the necessary aid to teach my students without any hindrance,” says Harish.
The disarray in the GFI manifests in the woefully inadequate facilities across clubs in the country. Talk to coaches, gymnasts or parents, and anecdotes abound of martial arts mats being substituted for foam pits, sub-standard equipment, wobbly pommel horse and parallel bars that don’t bend as they are supposed to.
PTKS is the only academy in Mumbai that houses state-of-the-art equipment which is certified by the International Gymnastics Federation-certified. Gymnastics is a relatively expensive sport and a fully equipped gymnastic set up can cost up to Rs 2 Crore.
Without compromising on the quality, the academy spent Rs 60 lakh last year to import the equipment from China.
“In several instances, we have seen athletes crossing the threshold of the sub-junior level with decent performances. But what happens next is that they find it difficult to progress to the next levels owing to a dearth of favourable equipment. Our authorities here try their best to bridge this gap and spend on the set up so that they can prepare themselves to match the international standards. Many athletes from New York and even Dubai have come here to train and said they didn’t find any differences,” remarks Harish.
Bridging the gap
Unlike cricket, which has an immense fan following across the length and breadth of India, Gymnastics is yet to find that much footing in the country. It was only after Dipa Karmakar’s extraordinary feat; the sport gained a share of its popularity.
However, it is unfortunate that all the accolades Dipa earned were only after her performance in the 2016 Rio games. Harish and his team are trying to take a bottom-up approach to bring about a change.
“Before making a big stride into the Olympics, we have set several smaller targets. One them being Junior Asian Games. Indian gymnasts haven’t achieved anything so far in this particular tournament. However, we have the potential,” says Harish.
He adds,” The junior games is equally important because if anyone starts winning accolades from an early age, then they will be able to maintain consistency and work more enthusiastically towards winning medals at senior levels. Here what happens is, we get to learn new aspects of the sports after participating in the Olympics, that’s why I want the teach athletes to internalise every aspect of the sport from junior level. I am creating a team for the 2020 Junior Asian Games, and I hope my training yields well there.”
Ploughing the potentials
All the athletes are given individual focus at PTKS. The group of coaches ensure they train not more than eight students in a single batch with separate batches of boys and girls. Harish, who has trained several state and national champions under his tutelage boasts about the performance of Vandita Raval, who participated in the 2013 Gymnastics World Championships held in Antwerp, Belgium, alongside Dipa Karmakar and Aruna Reddy.
“Before making a big stride into the Olympics, we have set several smaller targets. One them being Junior Asian Games.”
Today, Vandita works as a full-time international coach with the academy.
When asked about the current perception about this sport, she says, “Certainly, the sport has seen a surge in the popularity of gymnastics with Dipa’s achievement. However, when parents come here for their wards’ admission, they keep on asking whether the younger ones can qualify to the Olympics.”
“We should be looking at the bigger picture because the focus should be on developing the athletes’ skillsets. We want them to shine for India, but we have to remember that the foundation has to be secure to do so.”
Talking to some more athletes, it was found that unlike a gymnastic powerhouse like the US, India doesn’t have any documentation on the athletes guide on gymnastics. Different training camps follow different procedures to train the athletes.
To become a nation of strong gymnasts, every academy should come together to charter a standard training programme that will keep every gymnast from the country on the same ground. The feats achieved by Dipa or Aruna are rare, but more athletes should be able to meet such standards for India to have a stronghold in the sport.
“We certainly have the potential to produce great gymnasts. Here we train them for about ten years to reach to their fullest of capabilities. I sincerely, hope more experienced coaches across the country come forward to set a common target for everyone taking up Gymnastics,” says Harish.
Harish speaks highly of his students Dwija Ashar, Diya Chopra and Aditi Gandhi who, he feels, have the capabilities to prove their mettle for India in the long run.
Aditi, who participated in trials of Asian Games 2018, had the opportunity to visit the US and train with the same academy for three months where Olympic gold medallist Simon Biles picked up the sport. “I trained for three months, with the top training groups in the US, which was a highly motivating experience for me. There were a lot of new things to learn from different coaches which you miss out in India.”
“Now, with the international exposure, we are also gaining our confidence and inculcate a similar culture and learning procedure in our country as well,” says Aditi.
PTKS is cultivating upon their athletes for the Junior Asian Games 2020. However, head coach Harish Parab and his team are setting their eyes at the big picture of Olympics 2024.