After his historic medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asiad four years ago, Ashish Kumar endured a long lean-period. Jonathan Selvaraj tracks India’s premier gymnast as he targets Glasgow 2014 to prove that he isn’t a one-Games wonder.
Amidst the many genteel houses in Allahabad’s old Civil Lines locality is a brash structure of very recent vintage. Three stories tall, it is clad in grey-stone tile with a wavy pink segment along the middle. “When it rains, the water looks really beautiful when it falls from that part,” says Ashish Kumar, pointing with pride at a photo of the house on his mobile phone.
“Ever since I was a child, I always wanted to have a big house. So, after the Commonwealth Games, when I got a lot of prize money, I didn’t spend it on cars or clothes,” he says. Instead the 23-year old spent it building his dream house that, he says, gets plenty of gawkers.
The windfall was unexpected but not as much as Kumar’s achievements in the gymnastics hall in Delhi four years ago. With a bronze medal in floor exercise, he had broken Indian gymnastics’ barren run at the Commonwealth Games. A day later, he added a silver in vault. In a few months, Kumar would chalk up another first — a floor exercise bronze at the Asian games.
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There had been signs that things were coming together for Kumar. Back in 2006, he had won a bronze in floor at the Senior Asian Championships in a field that included two future Olympic gold medalists. A year later, he finished fifth in the all-round event at the Asian Junior Championships with 78.1 points, still the highest score by an Indian junior.
It was the Commonwealth Games, however, which made him the face of Indian gymnastics. In a sport where the country had long been seen as a joke, Kumar, then 19, drew applause from his competitors who paused to watch his routine. There was excited chatter on gymnastics forums online as he completed the only 7.0-Difficulty vault of the CWG field and followed it with a 6.6-Difficulty second vault. (The Difficulty-value or the D-value rates a routine on its difficulty, composition and number of combinations). Where the only expectations had been to dominate regional competitors, Kumar set his sights higher.
He dreamt of becoming the first Indian gymnast to feature in the Olympics and his house pays testament to his ambitions. The simple drawing room the architect presented during the design phase was not what what Kumar had in mind. The room now has a false ceiling on which are etched the five Olympic rings.
The London Olympics, however, would remain out of reach. No team was sent from India to the 2010 World Championships, the first stage for Olympic qualification. Ahead of the 2011 Tokyo World Championships, the Indian team had a disastrous training programme in England. At Tokyo, Kumar finished with an all round total of 79.5, just half a point short of what was needed to make the final Olympic qualification event. It was over two points less than his score at the CWG. Kumar’s final chance (through a wildcard) also came to nothing with rival factions choosing rather to battle for control of the GFI. “We really expected Ashish to qualify for the Games. When he didn’t, he was clearly depressed,” says longtime coach Ashok Mishra.
An injury to his left shoulder that had troubled him needed surgery. The operation and the long recuperation meant no gymnastics, training or competition for a year. Luckily, his recuperation coincided with the period of uncertainty around the federation but back in 2012, the positives were a long way off. “I wasn’t doing anything apart from travelling to the physiotherapist twice a day, eating and sleeping. I wondered if my shoulder would be the same after surgery,” he recalls.
Recovery was slow, but Kumar won his first competition, the inter-railways meet, on returning. But little had progressed elsewhere. The factional struggle in the GFI, which meant no competitions, camps or exposure tournaments, resulted in the body eventually being derecognised by the Sports Ministry. Kumar and other gymnasts were practicing at their state venues when the SAI called them up for a national camp in August last year.
Yet, problems persisted. Initially, there was no landing pit on which the high difficulty vaults could be practiced safely. Indeed, the team had trained for only a few weeks before competing at the 2013 Antwerp World Championships. On the vault, Kumar picked a safer, albeit weaker, routine. Despite that, he would fall while executing both the vault and floor routines. He scored three points less all-round than at the Tokyo World Championships.
Since then, Kumar has improved steadily. The team’s latest foreign coach, American Jim Holt, who has coached teams at six different World Championships, recalls the first time he met Kumar in Allahabad, where he had gone as a guest coach before last year’s national camp. Kumar, who has a collection of gymnastics videos that run into several hundred GB on his laptop, kept asking him about various international gymnasts. “I haven’t met many gymnasts like him the world over. He is obsessive about his craft and in life, the obsessive people are most often the successful ones,” says Holt.
Last month, at the Commonwealth Invitational Championships in Perth, Scotland, India returned with seven medals including three gold. Kumar won five with two gold — in vault and floor. There was little competition in Perth but Kumar scored an all-round 80.75. Recent rule changes have lowered the vault scores by 1 point and thus Kumar had come within 0.05 points of his Delhi score.
“Perth was important, not just because I won medals. In gymnastics if you do well in a competition, you always carry that belief with you. After the two medals at the Commonwealth Games, I was so confident at the Asian Games. Even though there were two Olympic medalists in my event, I was thinking it was really not that difficult,” says Kumar.
Coach Mishra says there is another advantage. “A gymnast has to have a face value in front of judges because judges are influenced not just by the gymnasts’ movements but also by reputation. If (World all-round champion) Kohei Uchimura makes a mistake, he may lose 0.1 point. A lesser known gymnast may instead lose 0.3 points for the same mistake. Many of the judges at Perth will be judging at the Commonwealth Games as well and will be marking him knowing Kumar is a very good gymnast,” says Mishra.
Kumar himself says he will go for gold in the vault and floor events in Glasgow, but for all his confidence, it will be a tough ask. Kumar caught a few breaks in 2010. The Delhi Games were scheduled just a couple of days before the World Championships and with an eye on qualifying a team for the London Olympics, England sent a B-team to Delhi while Scotland didn’t send any competitors at all. Kumar also had the advantage of competing in a friendly stadium and with two local judges. Glasgow will feature a full strength Great Britain contingent. Scotland will have Daniel Purvis, who won a Olympic team bronze with GB and an individual bronze as well. Daniel Keating, the reigning European Champion, will also feature for the host.
Among the elite
Coach Holt explains Ashish’s chances. “Vault is a crapshoot. If you stick your landing, you will get a high score. But my bet is on him in the floor exercise. Among the Commonwealth countries, he is an elite competitor,” says Holt. “I don’t know if Ashish will win gold in Glasgow but he will certainly be a better gymnast. Compared to 2010, he is already far superior and right now he is at his peak,” he says.
Holt says Kumar should finish with an all-round score of around 80 points, in the vicinity of the Olympics qualifying mark, expected to be 83. There are still a couple of years to go for the Rio Games but Kumar has already begun planning. He has added ever-higher difficulty scores to his floor exercise routine. His second pass was already challenging — a front somersault with a full twist (360) that connects to another front somersault with a double twist (720). It’s now positively formidable with the addition of another 360. While he fell at the Antwerp Worlds, he nailed the landing in Perth. At the Glasgow Games, he expects to further refine the execution.
Kumar has another awe-inspiring trick lined up. After this year’s competitions, he plans to do a modified version of the Yurchenko vault — where the gymnast bounces off a springboard onto the vaulting table. Kumar plans to add a triple twist as he works his way up to the vault, boosting the vault’s difficulty rating further.
All that will have to wait, however, until next year. The Yurchenko takes time to learn and while it may come good at a future World Championship, Kumar, on whom the team’s most realistic chances of a medal lie, is not willing to take any chances in Glasgow. “The Commonwealth Games are crucial for me and gymnastics in the country. It was only because of our performance there that our sport even got noticed. We might have any number of plans for the future but all of that will mean nothing unless we perform in Glasgow,” says Kumar.
Best of the rest
Patra, returning from injury, has a fighting chance in Glasgow; Karmakar set to chart new territory for women.
Patra sets sights on a medal
Rakesh Patra chose to specialise in one of the hardest apparatuses — the Roman rings. The 21-year-old from Odisha, a nephew of former international gymnast Suvendhu Patra, has a strong chance of making the finals at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
Patra had finished seventh among participants from Commonwealth Nations at the Antwerp World Championships in 2013, despite only having a few weeks’ worth of practice, finishing with a score of 13.666.
In Antwerp, however, Patra’s routine had a difficulty level of 6.1, higher than at the Commonwealth Games (5.9) but less than what he is currently practicing at. He had performed a routine with a difficulty rating of 6.4 at the recently-concluded Commonwealth Championships, scoring 14.225 in qualifying, which would give him a fighting chance of a medal at the Commonwealth-level. However, he failed to match his performance in the final and missed out on a medal.
Patra recently suffered a minor bicep injury while training and while he has returned to training, it remains to be seen how he performs in Glasgow.
Pioneer wants to blaze a trail
While the bulk of expectations around Indian gymnastics will lie on Ashish Kumar’s shoulders in the men’s section, coaches say, and recent records suggest, that Dipa Karmakar has a very strong chance of becoming a pioneer for Indian women.
Tripura’s Karmakar, 20, is the best Indian woman gymnast by a distance. She has won gold medals on each individual apparatus and the all-round title at the 2011 National Games.
At the 2013 World Championships, she finished 18th on the vault — improving from 21st in Tokyo and 32nd at the 2009 London Worlds. Her Antwerp score of 13.96, on performing a relatively simple routine, would have given her the gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where she finished seventh. “At the last Commonwealth Games, I was only 16-years-old. I was really nervous because it was my first big international competition. Now I am far more confident,” she says.
Karmakar has begun practicing the handspring double front vault — with a D-score of 7.0. Only three women have executed it in competition. “I am targetting 14.57 or higher. I want to do for women’s gymnastics what Ashish bhaiya did for men,” she says.