Dipa Karmakar's injuries and her pull-outs from major international events had come as a major setback for Indian gymnastics. But Pranati Nayak's bronze medal in vault at the Asian Championship in Mongolia last week lifted the gloom. The 24-year-old had qualified for the finals of Asian Games last year only to finish eighth in the vault event due to a poor landing.
"I had narrowly missed a bronze in the last Asian Championship two years ago and this time I was keen to get my acts right,'' says the Bengal gymnast in an exclusive interview with The Firstpost. Nayak performed her two vault routines with a modest difficulty rating of 4.8, focussing more on the execution. Points in gymnastics are awarded taking into account the difficulty rating (D score) and the execution (E score).
Against a stronger field in the Asian Games, Pranati had opted for a vault which had a significantly higher difficulty rating of 5.6 but the strategy had backfired. She had lost valuable points due to her poor execution, a mistake she had rectified during the Asian Championship.
Nayak's next target is the prestigious World Championship in Stuttgart in October this year. "With three months of preparation time, I am looking to work on vaults with a higher difficulty score of around 5.4 exploring the options of performing the Tsukahara 540 and Tsukahara 720,'' opines Nayak.
Though a medal at the Asian Championship will go a long way in boosting her confidence, Nayak has a very difficult road ahead to make it to Tokyo Olympics. Olympic quotas are determined by performances in the World Championships, overall rankings in a series of eight World Cups being held over two years and the next year's Asian Championship. Nayak had not taken part in any of the previous four World Cups which were part of the Olympics qualification tournaments. She is hoping that her showing in Mongolia will prompt the government to fund her participation in the remaining four World Cups. The infighting in the Indian Gymnastics Federation has often led to confusion regarding the preparatory camps affecting the performance of the gymnasts.
Dipa had won a bronze in the first of the Olympic qualifying World Cups before she suffered an injury in Baku World Cup. The Indian is currently placed eighth in the vault rankings. Only the top-ranked gymnast from the eight World Cups will book the ticket for the Olympics.
The odds might be stacked against Nayak but she has been a fighter. Born in a small sleepy village of Pingla in Midnapore district of West Bengal, she left her home when she was just eight to train in gymnastics. "One of her school teachers spotted her precocious talent and brought her to Kolkata's Sports Authority of India (Sports Authority of India) centre. I coaxed the authorities to provide her residential facilities at SAI because she was too young to travel regularly from her village to the centre. I knew she was special and we had to take care of her. After pleading with the authorities, we managed to get her to stay at the centre. We were told that she will have to produce results to avail of the hostel and luckily she lived up to my expectations winning a gold in the sub-junior Nationals in Chandigarh,'' recounts Minara Begum, Pranati's childhood coach who also travelled with her to Mongolia.
"When I first started gymnastics in my school I had no idea what it was. It was not even called gymnastics and our teachers called it yoga asana. When I moved to Kolkata, I fell in love with gymnastics. I was just eight but I knew I had to take it up seriously. There was no looking back. There was not much support from my family as they had no idea about the sports but it was Minara Mam who helped me reach this level,'' says Pranati. "My father would often ask me that despite all the sacrifices that I have made, why I still do not have an international medal. Therefore this medal is special and this is for my father." Pranati is employed with the Railways. Her family consisting of her two sisters and her parents are dependent on her salary. "I wish I did not have to depend on the government funds to take part in the World Cups and other international events,'' Nayak says.
Despite often ending up competing against each other in various events, Dipa continues to be a big influence on Pranati. "She has brought about a big transformation in Indian gymnastics and I look up to her. I speak to her frequently on phone and she was one of the first persons to congratulate me after I won the medal".
Pranati is only the fourth Indian after Ashish Kumar, Aruna Reddy and Dipa Karmakar to win a medal in gymnastics at the international level. The next couple of months will be crucial for the gymnast gunning for an Olympic spot.