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Inspired by Oksana Chusovitina, Dipa Karmakar shatters cynicism in her quest for a medal

Dipa Karmakar overcame ACL injuries, pandemic and negativity to reinvigorate her career. With the Paris Olympics around the corner, she is determined to make it to the Games to inspire more girls in Tripura to take up gymnastics.

Dipa Karmakar (Source: GFI)
FILE PHOTO: Gymnast Dipa Karmakar during a training session in Agartala. (Photo credit: GFI)

Parashar Kalita

Updated: 19 March 2024 10:54 AM GMT

Agartala, Tripura: Being trained at Vivekananda Byamagar, a club that lacks apparatus, in Agartala to become the gymnastic sensation of the country, gymnast Dipa Karmakar has come a long way. Her historic fourth-place finish in the vault final at the 2016 Rio Olympics made her a national sensation.

The impact is strong and apparent in the Tripura capital. “She is the diamond of the state. Because of her, everyone knows us," Sachinder Laskar, an auto-rickshaw driver, told this correspondent while guiding him to Dipa's home.

It has not been smooth sailing for Dipa, though. ACL injuries and suspension had nearly derailed her rising career, but she is a gritty girl and made a comeback, shattering all doubts and negativity around her.

Recently, Dipa has returned home from the apparatus World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan, garnering a fourth-place finish.

In August 2023, Dipa topped the all-round selection trials for the Asian Games on her comeback event at the Kalinga Stadium following a 21-month doping violation suspension. However, she was denied entry into the Indian contingent for not meeting the sports ministry's eligibility criteria.

The 30-year-old gymnast is now focused on qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics after failing to make the cut in Tokyo three years back.

“The last five years have been very challenging for me," Dipa told The Bridge.

"In the last two World Cups, I finished fifth and fourth respectively. I am now preparing for the upcoming World Cup and Asian Championships. My aim is to qualify for the Paris Olympics and win a medal before I consider retirement. There are still two competitions remaining, and I am hopeful of qualifying for the Olympics. Results will come, but efforts are crucial," she stated.

Dipa's career since the 2016 Rio Olympics has been plagued with two career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. When she was recovering, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed her comeback and then due to a doping violation, it got delayed further, pushing her nearly into oblivion.

"During my recovery, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. The last five years have been a struggle for me. I did not face as much difficulty from 2010 to 2017 as I had to from 2019 to 2023," she opined.

Busting negativity

As her wait for a comeback got longer, negativity prevailed around her. Doubts were cast on her future.

There was advice to quit the sport, but Dipa did not allow that thinking to shake her belief.

“Many people, including journalists, suggested me to quit. They were critical of me. It was difficult to handle. Fortunately, those days are gone; I am doing well, and it helped me become strong mentally. My coach and my parents have always been supportive. They always encouraged me during this difficult phase. With the blessings of the god, I hope to win a medal in the coming days," said Dipa.

Dipa Karmakar with her parents at her residence in Agartala. (Photo credit: Parashar Kalita/The Bridge)

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Dipa looked for a source of inspiration to keep herself motivated for a comeback. In this circumstance, Dipa turned towards Oksana Chusovitina, an Olympic and World Championships gold medal-winning artistic gymnast, who made a comeback to the ring at the age of 48 in September 2023.

Recalling the days of his daughter's struggle, Dulal Karmakar would say, "It is tough for someone to make a comeback, but she did it. She was inspired by Oksana Chusovitina from Russia, who is 49 and a mother of two children. Dipa always tells me and her mother that if that woman can do it, why can't she? Many people said Dipa was finished, but she has shown them who she is."

"Dipa's willpower is strong, but she is also stubborn yet calm. If someone tells her she cannot do anything, she will be more determined, put in her efforts and prove them wrong. She does not take off on holidays; except for Sunday," added Dulal.

Dipa, the pioneer

The memory of 2016 is still strong, and for the young gymnasts and their parents in Agartala, Dipa is the source of inspiration.

Dipa's rise in the international arena has successfully paved the way for the rise of a robust gymnastic culture in Tripura.

She is still the cynosure of all eyes, and people look at her with sheer respect. Several young children training at the Vivekanand Byamnagar want to follow in her footsteps to become India's next gymnastic sensation.

One of the parents, Damini Rao, spoke highly of Dipa as she single-handedly changed the face of the sport in Tripura even though the state was introduced to gymnastics way back in the 1960s by coach Dalip Singh.

Young children training at the Vivekananda Byamagar in Agartala.

“My daughter was born in 2013. After watching the performances of Dipa Karmakar in the 2016 Olympics, and seeing banners and hoarding everywhere here, I became a fan of her and decided to enrol my daughter to the Vivekananda Byamagar. My daughter has been training here for the last five years and has played at the state level, and I hope she can compete in bigger competitions in the future," said the parent.

Mausumi Shaha, the mother of a six-year-old boy, said, “I have enrolled my son to the academy last year. He is just six. Gymnastics is a special sport in Tripura, and many people here practice gymnastics. It all happened because of Dipa."

"Most of gymnasts of the state are from Vivekananda Byamnagar," she added.

One of the youngest gymnasts of the club, Sharabanti Chakrabarty, said, "I saw Dipa ma'am on television and practice daily, and I want to participate in the Olympics for the country."

'Very much interest in coaching'

For Dipa, who is employed in the state sports department as an assistant director, the future is coaching.

She would say, "Grassroots is like Nurturing a tree in its early days."

"I am very much interested in coaching and aiming to pursue that after my retirement. However, I don't know what the future holds for me now," Dipa said.

Dipa also expressed her gratitude to the coaches who do the most unenviable job of spotting and grooming talent at the grassroots level.

“I want to thank Soma Nandi madam for her hard work at the grassroots level. After her, Bisheshwar Nandi sir helped me. Working at the grassroots requires a lot of patience. It is like nurturing a tree in its early days; if we provide water and sunlight, the tree will grow accordingly and yield results. Similarly, if we do good work at the grassroots level, I strongly believe that good results will follow in the future," Dipa opined.

Young girls during their indoor training at the Vivekananda Byamagar.

“Athletes now receive financial assistance, which is beneficial. I believe financial support should be implemented at the grassroots level too, for nutrition and other needs. Schemes like Khelo India are doing good," she added further.

In Dipa, there is already a coach brewing. While training, she also oversees the progress of young children.

Dipa also has a piece of advice for young trainees and their parents.

“Grassroots work in sports requires patience. Advanced training can be done, but grassroots work is hard for coaches, I want them to work with more patience and interest, and not give up. Children may make mistakes, but at that time, they need encouragement to believe they can do it. Also, Nutrition is important. Today's children eat very little and consume more fast food. I advise parents to pay special attention to this," she articulated.

'Future is bright'

The 30-year-old is also optimistic about the future of gymnastics in India, but she calls for smart work.

“The future of gymnastics is bright. Coaches need to work harder, both technically and smartly. Currently, we have many children, and if we want to increase their number, we need to work smarter. Facilities are improving now. Centres with good facilities exist in Delhi, Bhubaneswar, Prayagraj, and Tripura. The key is to work smartly and patiently, and results will come," she stressed.

As Dipa savoured success and struggles equally, she urged future generations of gymnastics to stay positive during difficult times.

“As an athlete, you need to stay positive all the time. Try not to be in controversy, don't harbor negative thoughts. I advise all athletes not to give up. Face challenges and emerge victorious," Dipa signed off.

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