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The case of the missing Vault: Gymnast Pranati Nayak, coach take on unsavoury rumours

Back from Tokyo, battling criticism over a 'meek' performance, India's second ever Olympic gymnast and her coach break down the facts behind her decision to not go for a second vault in the qualifiers.

Written by Dipankar Lahiri | Kolkata |
Updated: July 29, 2021 3:21:12 pm
Pranati Nayak poses at the Olympics Games Village in Tokyo (PTI Photo)

While words like ‘fitness’, ‘mental health’ and ‘human’ have seen heavy use for Simone Biles who decided to bow out of the Olympic finals, another gymnast’s exit at an earlier stage of the same competition has not received quite the same kindness in India.

The country’s only female Olympics gymnast after Dipa Karmakar, Pranati Nayak, finished in the bottom half of the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics qualifying round last week. Her low score was partly because of a decision similar to Biles — to not do the second of two vaults.

Yet unlike Biles, Nayak and her coach are facing flak.

“We can’t stop anyone from thinking or saying what they think is right. The ground situation is something only Pranati and I know. The world has seen what we have done. A duty was given to me, I have carried it out to the best of my abilities,” said Lakhan Sharma, a day after arriving in India from the Tokyo Olympics.

Sharma, Pranati’s coach, was under fire even before the Kolkata-based athlete’s exit from the games. One of the leading critics of Sharma’s role has been Minara Begum, Pranati’s former coach who has previously expressed her disappointment at not being allowed to travel with her.

“My eyes welled up with tears seeing Pranati’s meek performance… How can the coach (Sharma) let her do this? Only a coach takes such decisions (of not attempting a second Vault)… He is not even made a district-level gymnast, an unknown name in Indian gymnastics,” Minara Begum had told PTI on the day of Pranati’s event.

While Sharma says he has no comments on Minara Begum, Pranati is more open about the person who says she taught her the ABCs of the sport.

“What do I say about Minara,” she said with an exasperated laugh. “She has not been with me for more than a year now. Now that the Olympics have come around, she has changed completely and she suddenly wants to be my coach again. But Lakhan Sharma has been with me at several competitions.”

READ | Vaulting from Midnapore to Tokyo: Pranati Nayak

“I was her protege. She could have supported me more before my performance, she could have taken pride in my participation — I am only the second gymnast from India after Dipa Karmakar in Rio,” she said.

“Now I see Bengali news outlets are publishing personal speculations about me. The only thing I know is, when I was waiting for my routine as my song started playing in Tokyo, I was not thinking about whether people were saying good things about me. I was not thinking about Minara. My mind was focused,” said Pranati.

To Vault or not to vault?

At Tokyo 2020, the 26-year-old Bengal gymnast scored 13.466 in Vault with a difficulty of 5.000 and execution of 8.466, but surprised many by not making her attempt at a second vault — a Handspring Forward Salto 360-degree turn. She had a total score of 42.565 over the four categories, finishing at 29th spot.

Gymnast Pranati Nayak at the training arena in Tokyo (Source: SAI Media)

While some, like Minara, have said this was a sign of being ‘meek’, Sharma said critics do not know the full picture.

“In the week before Pranati’s event, a ‘podium training’ round was held in Tokyo. Pranati landed awkwardly on her second Vault that day, and her knee felt a little wrong,” he said.

“See, for a coach, the most important thing is protecting his ward from injury. And the Vault apparatus can be dangerous. If your landing is one inch to the right or left, it can cause a knee injury. It takes months to get one Vault right. Pranati has her whole career in front of her. The Asian level and the world level is very different in Gymnastics. So we decided to focus on the first Vault,” explained Sharma.

“The worst thing for her would be if she ended up being injured in a mad scramble to get a medal,” he said.

Giving it her best shot

For Pranati, the biggest takeaway from having gone to the Olympics, was to be brushing shoulders with the likes of Oksana Chusovitina — the 46-year-old gymnast who was participating in her 8th and final Olympics — and Simone Biles.

“It was amazing to be taking part on such a huge platform. Just to be able to say ‘hi hello’ to people like Biles was a great opportunity. I had actually competed with Oksana before, what a great end to her Olympic career this was,” she said.

As for Sharma, one of the biggest takeaways from Tokyo has been a more complete grasp of where Pranati, who had qualified for the Games via the continental quota, stands in the world as he goes back to the drawing board, making calculations on which apparatus to target and so on.

But he said the best part of Pranati’s participation was how the frantic two months before the Olympics bore fruit in Tokyo.

He said, “On April 28th, we got news that there was a chance Pranati could qualify for the Olympics. When I got the phone call, surprise was my only emotion. Soon, we realised we just had two months to prepare for the Olympics! SAI was closed then. For technical gymnastics training, you need equipment! I started calling my friends in gymnasiums so that they could allow Pranati to train.”

“It was a grueling two months. Pranati often used to tell me, ‘I can’t do this, this is beyond me’, but we decided to focus on the controllables. ‘Let’s give it our best shot,’ I used to tell her. Nobody will know these things. When she was having pain in her legs, we had to call a physio from SAI at 2 o’ clock at night. No one will know these things,” said Sharma.

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