Dipa Karmakar, with her one-in-a billion Olympic-level Produnova vault (a giant D-Score of 7 before it was downgraded), can be a tough act to follow. When Aruna Budda Reddy steamed in towards the vaulting table, trying to gain the desired acceleration for the take-off, an invisible load of expectations used to follow her, dragging her back.
Thoughts of living upto “the next Dipa” tag, realisation that people had invested monetarily in her and the sheer pressure of matching the Vaulting headlines of her senior’s performance had made her forget the early joy she’d felt of cracking her first lift-off, her first tumble, the very first handstand and completed cartwheel in gymnastics.
When the 24-year-old became India’s first-ever World Cup medallist picking the bronze at Hisense Arena in Melbourne, scoring a 13.649 on the Vault, Aruna recalled the wise words of an illustrious coach with who GoSports Foundation had stitched up a mentorship programme for the nervy girl last year. “She was feeling extremely pressured following in Dipa’s footsteps,” recalls Aparna Ravichandran of GoSports. “We set up a meeting for her with Mr Pullela Gopichand and she told him how she could deliver brilliantly in practice, but not in tournaments,” she says of the Hyderabad girl.
Aruna was bogged down then, not just by Dipa’s looming shadow, but was facing some pretty nagging issues. The foam pit she trained on in Hyderabad gave her dust allergies because it was old. Unlike Dipa, Aruna did not have a constant coach in Bisweswar Nandi who’d do all the thinking for her. Injuries stalked her like they shadow all taped, bandaged gymnasts. Scores weren’t popping eyes — like Indian gymnastics had gotten used to, while Dipa nursed her own injury and stayed away. Aruna was sinking under the weight of everything, forgetting why her late father had told her she would ace the sport.
“Mr Gopichand basically explained to her that these problems and injuries happen to every sportsperson. She needed to realise she was in a privileged position to represent her country, she was obviously capable of winning and she needed to go back to thinking of the start of the journey and the joy of being able to do gymnastics. He made her aware of the love she’d felt for her sport when she was winning Nationals,” she recalls.
Other practical advice included pushing herself in physical conditioning – doing 11 laps instead of 10, 25 squats reps instead of 20, so that she’d push herself physically and feel stronger. Going into a vault which as an apparatus hinges a lot on confidence, means the belief that you can take the workload is a huge booster at the start of the run-up.
The Hyderabadi took one tiny step forward medalling at a World Cup – albeit a low-rung meet, and effectively swatted the monkey off her back. The pressure had turned into a monster weighing her down while she counted 100 days to the Games. “There was more pressure than joy or actual focus on what she needed to do. She was very happy when Gopi Sir told her all she had to do was think back to why she started,” Aparna recalls. “He said ‘if you think only about what holds you back, you wont be able to go forward.” Aruna, a cool cat and extremely intelligent, and not given to hysterics, would reflect on the words, and set about her mission.
While her father had been her guiding force in the early years, Aruna had felt a little rudderless after his passing away. Her sister and brother-in-law would urge her to keep at the sport and help her at every step, but without her preferred full-time travelling coach Brij Kishore, Aruna lacked the focus needed to do well in this sport chasing perfection.
Late in 2017, Aruna would travel to Uzbekistan – Tashkent, where things would start falling into place for her, psychologically. She was armed with Gopichand’s advice, and as the only Indian there – with her coach accompanying for part of the trip – she would focus exclusively on gymnastics. “I immersed myself in focussing on execution. It was good to know I wasn’t left to my devices and just walking directionless. I set the base for my vaults that I’ll likely perform at the Commonwealth Games,” she noted.
At Melbourne, her first vault was the Handsprint forward, piked (doubled over at waist) salto landing on a half-turn (facing the vault) for 4.6 Difficulty. The second was the Tsukahara 360 – for 4.80 points. “The first I’m comfortable with, so I score well there,” she would say, notching a execution score of 9.066, the second best amongst all vaulters. The Tsukahara – handspring, followed by complete 360 degrees twists with no legs bent – would give her 8.833.
Both vaults are due an upgrade. “At Tashkent I’d already started work on the 540 forward and 540 back, tougher vaults that can get me medals at CWG,” she said.
Thinking of medals came late to Aruna Reddy. Her sister Pavani explains how the deceased father had been happy to push her into sport, without thinking how big or small, how medal-yielding gymnastics was 16 years ago in 2002, when Aruna was tiny. After the father’s death, Aruna would continue, but troubles remained despite making the TOPS list. In what should be a warning sign for the Sports Ministry – two years before the Olympics – Aruna’s example of how athletes face uncertainty is note-worthy.
“We know government will support her, and she’s on the list. But before going to Tashkent, we had to scramble to accumulate funds for second half of the trip when she extended training. A corporate chipped in, and we’ll be reimbursed by government. But at that point, it’s a struggle,” she would say. It was in that extended stint that she polished her execution techniques which take time.
While training for gymnastics means she’s allowed chicken only in its healthiest form – Aruna has now started believing she belongs at the elite level. Eating like a top athlete, training like one, and now winning like a top contender. “She’s sensitive to what people say, and little things can affect her performance,” sister Pavani says. On evidence of Saturday, both her heart and her technique are getting sturdier. She will definitely not return to Australia – Gold Coast next time – as Dipa’s under-study. There’s a bronze of her own, dangling from her neck.