Dipa Karmakar will go mainstream, come 2018, when she resumes competing and after spending the whole of 2017 chiselling her biggest strength – her powerful legs. Four years after she garnered global attention successfully employing the rare and radical Produnova, India’s Olympian gymnast will unveil a new – but traditional – vault: the Handspring Rudi.
The handspring stretched forward salto with a 540 turn (that’s one and-half-twists) is a highly skilled manoeuvre, but more conventional than the double somersault she was landing with a billion hearts in mouths. It fetched her the 4th position at the Rio Olympics, but coach Bisweswar Nandi reckons it’s time she picked a routine that could earn her a more assured landing than the Produnova’s bottom-grazer.
Should she stick the landing for the Handspring Rudi (Difficulty at 5.8), Dipa can notch higher Execution scores, after the Produnova lost six tenths its score (down from 7.0 to 6.4 though still the highest) when the new Code of Points came into effect this year. “The new vault means if she’s perfect, the deductions will be very less and she can score even higher than the Produnova. So we wanted that option, because now the target is only an Olympic medal. If the landing on the Produnova improves, we’ll keep it, but chances are it’ll be the Handspring-540 from now,” coach Nandi said.
For far too long, Karmakar was being branded the freak on the circuit who attempted a dangerous vault in search of high points with a low landing that was scoffed at by critics.
In truth, the 23-year-old stuck each of her landings through the top competitions: Commonwealth, Asian Games and World Championships, and cut an assured picture of a safely executed vault which she had meticulously put together.
Still, the day she made clear her intent to now compete with other contenders on their terms (Swiss Rio medallist Giulia Steingruber, Uzbek Oksana Chusovitina and host of other Chinese are practitioners of the Rudi), Dipa had her biggest inspirations flanking her: the coach and gymnastics’ biggest name Nadia Comaneci, who was in town for an awards event in the city where Dipa was to be felicitated.
“Yes, the downgrade of the Produnova won’t be fair on Dipa because she’s worked hard on that one, but I think she’s capable of doing other vaults – much better,” Comaneci stressed, adding, “She’s a vaulter, she’s got speed, it’s her event and I think she will figure out something that’s good for her. She’s a good tumbler and a leg person.”
Scaling up the challenge
Nandi also revealed his intentions to upscale her challenge on Vault 2: Karmakar will now attempt the Tsukahara 900 (2 ½ twists), a notch tougher than her Tsukahara 720 (2 twists), with the new code pitching it at 6.0 as against 6.5 earlier. “She has to perfect the second vault and perform it with no deduction, so she has flexibility on the important one. She needs to give judges nothing to cut,” Comaneci said.
The former Romanian great – a dazzling gymnast who scored her first Perfect 10 on what she calls her “toughest, butterflies in stomach routine the Comaneci salto”, praised Dipa for an effort that was tougher than what most people understood.
“I first heard the rumour that a gymnast from India was doing a difficult vault, and saw it on tape. At Rio, I watched with muscles tight from fear and sitting frozen and not breathing. Now the double somersault is a difficult vault for guys but their table is high and gives them a little more time to do more flips. For women, you gotta be a little quicker, because guys have little more space to do the same routine,” Comaneci recalls.
The gymnastics great reckoned the Produnova could only be done “on paper’ in her time, though Elena Produnova, the eponymous Russian was a marvellous competitor because she performed the feat on a narrower table.
“But it’s difficult for Dipa. You never know, the vault might be slippery, and the margin for error is little. She can’t miss even a little, in other vaults you can miss and still stick it. I would know what she would do soon as she went from board to vault because of my trained eye – know if angle is right way and elbows don’t buckle. Lots of critical details – most important the run, the speed from board to vaulting table and position of arms and body to know if she’d be able to flip.”
The biggest challenge though, Comaneci insisted, was in not getting distracted during the acceleration gaining run-up by noise of 12000 people at the Olympics.
“I never saw her slow down, or everything would change.”
It’s this leg speed that’ll help her in the new power vault – the Handspring Rudi too, which though it has a less lethal landing, remains challenging and owing its origins to the trampoline acrobat from 1920s Dave Roudolph. Dipa’s hero Oksana Chusovitina is known to have made the Rudi her own, lending her name to a variation.
Nadia spelt out the path ahead for Dipa, who is unlikely to compete in 2017, but will unveil her new vault at the CWG or Asiad next year – four years after her Produnova debut. “You repeat a routine in practice because repeating sometimes keeps you where you are, and then you improve a little, you may go down, it’s not always upwards improvement, and always fast. It’s slow, painful. Hence, you need to like what you do to repeat over and over again,” she advised.
Dipa – her hair a little longer, heels a little taller, and hopes for 2020 even higher – patiently hung onto every word coming her way. “I’m just very lucky to hear her speak here, and give an interview sitting with this legend. 76 Olympics, we still take inspiration from that, and she motivates us,” Karmakar said.