The Produnova. It is the “dark arts” of international women’s gymnastics. It’s a word uttered with a gasp, and the dread that accompanies That-Which-Must-Not-be-Named. When performed, this difficult piece of apparatus carries a deathly air, the trepidation seen on the faces of all who watch it unfurl. On July 31 at Glasgow’s Hydro Stadium, India’s Dipa Karmakar rolled out a Produnova in the individual competition at the Commonwealth Games (CWG). The 21-year-old from Tripura is now a sensation on the gymternet — as gymnastics’ close-knit but vocal online community is known. In India, she’s a mere CWG bronze medallist, her countrymen oblivious to what she pulled off, to the gasping awe and wonderment of those present at the Glasgow stadium on that overcast Thursday. That feat was missed by live TV, which is why Karmakar’s bronze — even if it is India’s first women’s gymnastics medal at the Commonwealth Games — doesn’t dazzle as much as some of the golds. But it could be the most significant medal brought home from Glasgow.
Gymnastics speaks a complicated language of three-decimal scores, and not many comprehend its nuances in India where it exists on the fringes —in Bengal, UP and a few states in the Northeast. But suffice to say that Karmakar has logged the highest score on a Produnova in the world: 15.100, which is 7.000 for difficulty, and an 8.100 for execution, with a 0.1 penalty, making her the rarest of rare phenomenons. Only two of her contemporaries have attempted the Produnova: Yamilet Pena of Dominican Republic and Fadwa Mahmoud of Egypt. None has managed to garner a high of 15.100 in a high-profile competition.
When the Russian Yelena Produnova made her dismount stick (landed firmly on unbent feet) at the 1999 Universiade Games, it was considered a high-risk manoeuvre, because her famous handspring double front vault could end up in serious spinal injuries and a straight break on the neck. Yet, the Russian did enough to launch her skill into high-orbit, though it never fetched her an Olympic gold. Later, Yekaterina Tsvetkova was to attempt it many times with mixed results. But the disquiet around the skill has grown since: it is seen as something young gymnasts attempt not fully knowing that it could lead to paralysis or even death. Worse, it is believed that they would take the risk anyway, chasing that difficulty score of 7— the highest on the vault — flinging themselves into the air, and hoping like hell that the landing’s not fatal.
“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,” Karmakar says with a calm smile. The Produnova comprises running full tilt towards the springboard, a jump that is followed by blocking by the hand, swinging the legs into two full rotations while in flight for twin somersaults, and then the all-important frontal landing, which can go awfully wrong and snap the spine into two if unbalanced.
Comfortably seated on an easy couch at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium on a Sunday afternoon three weeks later, Karmakar can nonchalantly throw around the D-word because she believes she’s entirely in control of her movements on the vault. She knew about the risks when coach Bishweshwar Nandi floated the idea around four months ago. “She’s always had the speed and strength. I consulted senior coaches because this is a risky vault, but when I asked her, she was confident,” says Nandi.
Karmakar had watched a South African and a Guyanese flub the Produnova miserably at the Tokyo World Championships last year. Those were amateurish attempts, going for broke, but not quite prepared to land without looking clumsy. “More than the bronze medal, I was happy I succeeded in this vault,” says Karmakar, who is not quite able to pronounce Produnova’s name, but recalls seeing Yelena’s YouTube videos. “But I remember her green costume!”
Karmakar began training three months ago. “I’d seen boys do it, so why not? It’s tough because when you land after two aerial somersaults, the weight that comes on the leg is double – if I’m 45 kg, the legs have to take 80-90 kg,” she says. Now, imagine landing on the neck instead, which can crack under such weight.
“I don’t imagine the worst, it doesn’t work like that,” she says. Coaches feel responsible for such high-risk manouevres, and Nandi spent several sleepless nights debating if his ward was ready. “It was only 10-15 days before we left for Glasgow that I thought she should try it on the real apparatus,” Nandi says.
To qualify for the finals, Karmakar needed to unveil the Produnova in the team event a day earlier, and that ended in a mini-disaster. “I couldn’t land properly,” she says. She limped off with a twisted ankle. The team doctor fed her painkillers, and adrenaline did the rest on the day of the finals. “She told me ‘I’ll do it, don’t worry’,” says Nandi.
Her first vault fetched her a modest 13.633 and placed her 8th. It was when she was readying for her second vault that the BBC commentators realised what she was gunning for. Christine Still, veteran TV expert and a British coach who has seen it all in her 40 years of training youngsters, seemed to wince in fear, and presenters and analysts Matt Baker and Mitch Fenner raised the crescendo as Karmakar hit her stride. She had massaged her ankles and knees, eased her neck muscles, screwed her eyes into concentration and lifted both hands before taking off, like an aeroplane gaining speed. “My coach had said I should treat it like I’m at the IG stadium. I imagined I was home,” she says.
It wouldn’t have lasted more than seven seconds. Karmakar banged her heels to gain acceleration, before she took off using her palms as springs, squeezed her feet into a tuck to spin for the saltos and looked like hitting the landing mat in a crouch, before she bounced back on her feet. “Haven’t seen that for 20 years since Produnova. This is her moment,” Fenner said, with the commentators almost praying that she hadn’t landed on the floor.
“An inch between her and the mats, definitely feet first,” they chimed. Definitely feet first, thought Nandi in relief. Dressed in a white costume with a tiny Tricolour stitched on her sleeves, she was the talk of the stadium. On the Web, commentators scolded yet another impetuous youngster for stopping aging hearts momentarily. Appreciation was grudging, her technique taken apart nuance by nuance. The gravest crime — the landing aside — seemed to be her cowboying (pulling the legs apart and holding onto knees during the spins to increase the speed of rotations) while they whinged about how the Produnova is not very elegant, hence not very aesthetic for girls.
“I’m still perfecting it. I need more power to do it better,” Karmakar would say later, aware that her legs tucked too much, she landed too close to the ground. “To the untrained eye, I came close to a Produnova. But when I see her videos, I know there are 100 things I need to improve,” she says. The Produnova is an exhilarating vault, pushing the boundaries of women’s gymnastics, in its all-or-nothing form — like flying an aircraft. But in accepting the challenge, working patiently on the precise technique and logging a high score, Karmakar could prove to be a game-changer.
The gymnast doesn’t remember how she wound up in the sport, except that her father, a weightlifting coach in Agartala, thought that it suited her best as a five-year-old. In many ways, her feat is a culmination of years spent by Tripura’s gymnasts chipping away at a sport that was brought to them by Haryanvi coach Dilip Singh, who married an Agartala girl and settled there. Coach Nandi was a product of that school of gymnastics, which flourished in the 1980s. “My state is small, but they are a big help in the sport,” she says.
Though he has dealt with brute brawn at work, her father Dulal insisted that his daughter take up the beautiful sport of artistic gymnastics, which has a long tradition in Tripura. “Having watched gymnastics from up close, he knew more than anyone else that it wasn’t just about dainty movements and pretty costumes. It needed strength and guts,” she says. The mental toughness came from her mother. “She taught me never to be scared of new things,” she says.
Like all gymnasts from Tripura, Karmakar started at the Netaji Subhas Regional Centre of SAI, Agartala, where her coach Nandi had begun training on his way to three national championships. Even when she was six, both father and coach insisted she build considerable strength, in what is a very de-glamourised approach to the sport. “More time is spent in stretches and strengthening exercises that no one will ever see in a stadium. But the strong base is important,” she says. A second-year BA student, Karmakar possesses a monastic focus on her sport. “I don’t have a life beyond gymnastics. I watch TV occasionally, nothing that is must-watch,” she says. But she’s a big fan of how Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif dance. “Not everyone understands how tough dancing is. The biggest effort is in making it look effortless,” she says.
At a felicitation for the CWG athletes on August 8 in Delhi, the bronze truly sunk in for Dipa Karmakar, when acknowledged by India’s biggest sporting icon. “Sachin Tendulkar mentioned me in his speech,” she gushes. “He thought I was from Maharashtra. I told him, ‘No, I’m from Tripura’. He said it was an even bigger achievement and that he was proud of me. I went weak in my knees when I heard that.”
When it mattered, though, when Dipa Karmakar needed to make her landing, she ensured neither her knees nor her ankles wobbled as she fetched India its bravest and most beautiful bronze.