(The Bridge is now on WhatsApp. Subscribe to stay connected to the Indian Sporting Ecosystem.
Click here & hit the SEND button.)
Last year, Indian gymnastics had a new star.
Grappling with the emergence and sudden, rude absence of Dipa Karmakar all within the span of one year where she became a hero at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and went on to battle a career-threatening knee injury she finally overcame, there was a void that needed to be filled. That was the space Aruna Budda Reddy needed. In 2018, she became the first Indian to clinch a medal at the Gymnastics World Cup where she won Bronze.
Currently undergoing intensive rehab for an injury she picked up, Aruna has to pick and choose her path to Tokyo 2020 quite carefully. Risks might make or break her Olympic dream but Telangana gymnast remains resolute. Nothing is confirmed until it actually is, she says during a candid exchange with The Bridge.
“Since India isn’t strong when it comes to Team events, all of us are trying for Individual qualifications. There are only two quota spots we are eligible for that way- so the competition is intense,” says Aruna.
“Before I had planned to qualify via the World Cups,” she reveals. “But I was injured in the first World Cup competition which means that I will not be participating in any other World Cups now.”
“I’ll compete at the World Championships directly,” she states. The World Championships are scheduled to take place in October.
Here, it is probably pertinent to take a look at the Qualification processes open to Indians before Tokyo 2020. Simply put, there are two routes available to her- World Cups and World Championships. There are a total of eight World Cups in the time leading up the Games and the first one saw Dipa Karmakar win a Bronze in Cottbus. The month of March will see twin World Cups each in Baku and Doha. Gymnasts are required to submit their three best finishes at the respective competitions. Similarly, the best three finishes for every gymnast are calculated, and the winner of each event at the end of this series will qualify an individual spot to the Olympics.
The World Championships in October, on the other hand, 12 men and 20 women qualify based on their Individual All-around results with a maxim of 1 quota place per country. Additionally, the best three ranked athletes in the Apparatus finals will earn one nominative quota place allocated to the athlete by name. This is the route Aruna will be aiming for. But even she knows that it is going to be a race against time for her, given a major injury she is currently recuperating from.
“I had an ACL surgery on December 5th,” she says.
“ACL reconstruction is a major injury for any athlete in any sport. Usually, a doctor ballparks the recovery time post-reconstruction to one year or slightly more to normalise.”
“But for me, I just have 9 months left. It’s a race against time,” she says. “The World Championships are the only chance I have otherwise, I will probably have to give Tokyo 2020 a miss.”
“But I am determined to give this all I have.”
To get a fair idea of how far gymnastics has come in the country, consider this. A year and a half after Dipa Karmakar dazzled in Rio, the unthinkable happened. Three Indian gymnasts reached the finals of their respective events at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. This unprecedented situation was marred only by the fact that female gymnasts in Gold Coast had points docked off of them for not wearing identical leotards and for competing without an identifying national emblem in the team final. In short, it is the Federation that continues to remain in disarray which is only heightened by the fact that in the recent round of renewal of recognition by the Sports Ministry to National Sports Federations, the Gymnastics Federation of India does not figure in the list.
In addition to these pressures, Aruna has the added stress of taking a risk of this magnitude on her plate at the moment. “In six months, I’ll be back to training in the field again to start doing workouts. So, I have just six months to get ready.” As an afterthought, she recognises the risk she will be taking but in front of an Olympic dream, it seems quite small to her.
“GoSports is sponsoring my rehab completely,” she adds. “The Sports Authority of India helped in the medical procedures. So, there is a steady stream of support and also expectations here.”
“Soon after the World Cup medal last year, the weight of expectations has increased exponentially and sometimes, I have trouble keeping up with it,” she continues.
“Soon after the World Cup, there was the Commonwealth and Asian Games and that’s when this affected me the most.”
“But not anymore,” she concludes. “All I am concentrating on is being fit in time for the Worlds.”