I got only 2 months to train for Tokyo Olympics, had no equipment to practice in lockdown - Pranati Nayak
In a freewheeling conversation with The Bridge, India's sole representation in gymnastics at Tokyo Olympics, Pranati Nayak shares her journey of the past two years and how she prepares for the Games.
India's lone gymnast at Tokyo Olympics, Pranati Nayak, was at her home in the Pingla village of Midnapore, West Bengal, on April 30. After staying in Barasat, a town near Kolkata, for two long months just to train, Nayak had visited her native to celebrate her sister's marriage anniversary on that fateful day when the news was confirmed.
"I was just winding off with my family members at home, and in the evening, I received a call from where I came to know that I will be going for the Tokyo Olympics," Nayak explains in an exclusive conversation with The Bridge.
"I was astonished, to be honest. I didn't have international exposure since 2019 and was at home for more than a year. Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility in Kolkata had closed because of the lockdown. Even the Asian Gymnastics Championships got cancelled. Amid all the challenges, I had lost all my confidence. Who would have even thought of going to the Olympics?" Nayak emphasised her disbelief.
Nayak, had claimed a bronze in the vault at the Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships in 2019. She became just the second female gymnast from India to qualify for the Olympics, after Dipa Karmakar when she was assured of an Olympics berth after qualifying via the Continental quota. She became eligible to qualify when the Senior Asian Championships, which were scheduled to be held in China from May 29, were cancelled due to the pandemic. Nayak was the reserve behind a Sri Lankan gymnast for the Asian quota.
She recalls that it was, in fact, a lucky day to get such news as she could share with her entire family, particularly her father Sumanta Nayak. Sumanta, who used to be a private bus driver had made immense sacrifices to see her daughter reach this stage. "I will always cherish that sight. Tears of happiness were dripping down from my father's eyes. He had a dream. He always used to hear Dipa Karmakar's name in Gymnastics and the wonders she attained, but this time he was euphoric that people will know about her own daughter. His dream was to see me in Olympics. 'Amar meye o Olympic khelbe' (My daughter is going to the Olympics), he kept on calling everyone and broke the news in excitement," quips Nayak.
As soon Nayak's news was confirmed, SAI left no stones unturned for her to get back in training for the Olympics. Within a couple of days, she was brought back to the SAI facility in Salt Lake, Kolkata. A team of 11 members, including her coach Laxman Sharma; a nutritionist, a psychologist, a masseuse, and a physiotherapist, among others were kept in a bio-bubble facility. However, Pranati will not have her childhood coach and veteran trainer Minara Begum at her corner, who has been coaching her for the last 18 years. Interestingly, in the list of coaches released by Gymnasts Federation of India, Nayak's long-time coach and mentor Minara Begum name find no mention.
However, starting to train in May for an Olympic scheduled in July is quite a tough ask for Pranati, who believes a gymnast should get at least 5-6 months of preparation for representing the country at the biggest sporting stage in the world. "Training has been going well, but if you see, it is just two months that I have got to prepare for the Games. I do not want to state any excuses, but all I am looking forward to is putting out my best performance ever at the Olympics."
Nayak, in fact, was at her home during the entire stretch of the lockdown and was focussing mainly on her training for an eventful calendar in 2022. "For almost a year, I had no equipment to practice. For us (gymnasts), maintaining physique and strength is of utmost importance. I had last competed in 2019 during Olympic Qualifiers. For a year, I was entirely at home. I have never stayed at home at a stretch for more than 20 days before the virus changed our fate.
"All clubs and gyms were closed. Initially, I could not even carry out my regular fitness training. I had set 2022 as my target with the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in mind," adds Nayak.
Initially, she was attending online training classes over Zoom. When the lockdown restrictions slowly started to lift, she travelled to other districts of Bengal to get the required physical training. In December 2020, she had come to Barasat, where one of the senior gymnasts from the state, Rakhi Debnath, helped her train. "Rakhi di helped me a lot so that I could continue with my training. She gave me a place to stay for three months and allowed me to train at a local club. At least I could manage 30% of my preparation with her help. Otherwise, I would have to stay in the village and would be travelling for hours every day to train."
It requires immense courage to prepare for the Olympics in just two months of training. This is where her mental strength paid off. At SAI Kolkata, her day starts at 8.40 in the morning. With two sessions of three-hour practice and managing to eat, rest and scribble out her mind in her personal diary in between, Nayak simply refuses to bog down by pressure. "I was not in training for a long time after all. And now, doubling my efforts often comes with its own challenges. I often get body pains and fatigues, but I think I have an indomitable spirit, which keeps me going. Of course, my team of nutritionist, physiotherapist and others have been working day and night to help me. I will not be taking any pressure going into the Olympics. Just have to give my best shot," concludes Nayak.
Nayak, who got a job in the Indian Railways in 2018, has taken up the responsibility of her family, and today she has become a household name in Midnapore. The stage is set at the Olympics for Nayak to take her big plunge, where she will be eying at least the score of 13.400. Getting exposure at the biggest stage in the world, Pranati would go all out for her medal hunt in Asiad and Commonwealth.