"Every gymnast needs to have a bit of anger in them... every sports person does."On Sunday, August 14, 2016, Dipa Karmakar will continue her work of breaking new ground for Indian gymnasts as she takes to the floor in the vault finals at the Rio Olympics. Like Toni-Ann Williams, Dipa Karmakar is the first and only female gymnast to represent her country at the Olympics. Unfortunately, her road to Rio wasn't nearly as smooth as many of the other gymnasts. But, like every other athlete competing in Rio, what makes her an Olympian is her drive and determination.
"It hasn't been easy for her. Initially, we didn't have the equipment. She practised on discarded second-hand equipment. The first vault she practised on was made using the parts of an old scooter. The Sports Authority of India had rejected her and told her that she'd never be a gymnast because she was born with flat feet. With each medal that she won, her resolve grew stronger. She refused to take 'no' for an answer," said [her father] Dulal [Karmakar].Her chances of making it to the final round were slim. Her overall ranking after the qualifications round was 51. It was her vault score that won her a spot in the finals. She is one of only five women who have successfully landed the extremely difficult Produnova maneuver, named after Yelena Produnova. Not only is it difficult, it's also dangerous. It's been called by some the "vault of death," and there have been many calls for it to be banned in official competitions.
So why would anyone try it? Well, to be frank, it's all about the money. Poor athletes in poor countries don't have the same opportunities as their competitors. To build the nation's training programs, they rely on donations. Donations that only come in when the medals do.
"There can be death if you land on the neck, there's death if you go down headlong. It is risky, I know. But to win something, I always knew I had to take a risk."
It's easy to get caught up in the stories of the truly remarkable athletes like Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles who are at the top of their fields and setting world records left and right. And we should honor their amazing achievements. But part of what I find some wonderful about the Olympics is the change to learn about the athletes from around the world who don't have world-class training opportunities and yet they still get up every morning and put in a full day's work at the gym because they know the real achievement is in pushing themselves to be their very best.
And, in the case of athletes like Dipa and Toni-Ann, they know that their success is not just for them. They carry the hopes of their entire country with them. Each medal is a step forward for all the young gymnasts back home.
Since her bronze medal in Glasgow, Dipa has become a celebrity in Tripura. She often arrives at the Agartala airport to a sea of well-wishers, and the state government arranges for an open jeep to take her home. But her parents like to maintain their distance from the buzz. "People love her and they should. But when she comes back home, she is still my little daughter. Nothing has changed for me," said her mother [Gauri Karmakar].She's been told "no" so many times, I expect she's learned how to ignore it and perform well just for spite. In fact, the latest news is around the fact that the Sports Authority of India (responsible for sending athletes to the Olympics) didn't bother to send her any support staff other than her coach, claiming it would be wasteful. Well, now that she's in the final, they've decided to rush her physiotherapist to Rio to help prepare for Sunday's event.
Dipa's chances of earning a medal on Sunday are slim. She's competing against the likes of Simone Biles. But even so, I think I may be cheering a bit harder for her than anyone else, knowing the level of effort she's already put in to get to the final in the first place. And I know I won't be the only one.
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