Dipa Karmakar recalls the excruciating pain she experienced in her right knee with every step she took in the Durbar Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Dipa’s gingerly walk past seated politicians and peers was one of her most agonizing experiences. It happened just over a year ago — in April 2017 — but she still cringes when talking about it. Ten days earlier, the 24-year-old had undergone a surgery for an Anterior Cruciate Ligament tear of her right knee. She was being awarded the Padma Shri by the president of India Pranab Mukherjee and she didn’t want images of her on a wheelchair being splashed in newspapers and broadcast on channels.
So she decided to walk and receive the award. “As I walked past the prime minister Narendra Modi ji he asked me what happened to me,” Dipa recalled during a chat earlier this year. She took the help of a staff member of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to help her maintain her balance.
“I underwent the surgery on April 2, and on April 11, I was in Delhi. I was to receive the Padma Shri on April 13. I could not walk and had to use crutches. Initially, I thought that I will use a wheelchair but didn’t like the idea of pictures of me being taken in such a position. After all, just a month ago I was fit and strong and my fourth-place finish at the Rio Olympics was still fresh in people’s mind. So I decided I would walk. It was painful but at least the photograph looks good,” Dipa recalls.
Since the start of this year, Dipa had been taking baby steps towards making a comeback. The gymnastics hall of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium is where Dipa and her coach Bishweshwar Nandi had been based as they bid to get ‘competition-ready’ for the Asian Games.
Last week, when she made the cut for the Asiad squad, it was a huge relief for Dipa. “I have become much more confident since the time of the Commonwealth Games,” Dipa says. She is scheduled to make her comback at the FIG World Challenge Cup in Mersin, Turkey, to be held later this week.
When Dipa missed the bus for the Commonwealth Games, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But what made her predicament tougher was that she trained in the same hall as the other gymnasts who were headed for Gold Coast.
“Last year was a terrible year. I had to go through rehabilitation for nearly nine months and could not practice my gymnastics routines. I missed the CWG and I also missed the Asian Championships and the World Championships. I perhaps could have won medals at these competitions but the reality was that I was injured. I was clear about one thing. When I go for my next competition I would not go as a tourist nor be satisfied by reaching the final. I would only go if I know I can give my best and am capable of winning a medal,” Dipa said.
That evening at the Rashtrapati Bhavan was not the only occasion Dipa had to grin and bear. When the physio first tried to bend her knee after three weeks of the surgery, she burst out crying. The tissue of the knee was soft and Dipa felt like she had lost all strength.
“I would lie down and the physio would try and make me bend my knee. Progress was very slow and extremely painful. The knee had been in a brace and after a surgery it is not easy. I would howl in pain. Everyday, I would make a mark (on the left leg) at the point till where I could bend my right leg. Then the next day I would try and bend it past that mark.”
Dipa had accepted that she needed to be patient because rushing back from an ACL tear can set one back by months. But there were occasions when she was itching to be out in the arena representing India. One such instance was when she was following on her mobile phone the scores of Indian gymnasts at the World Cup in Melbourne in February. “Sir when will I be able to participate in a World Cup now,” she had asked Nandi who only nodded in response.
The road to recovery has also demanded that the gymnast works within her limitations, even if it means shelving the vault which made her a household name across the world. The coach and the ward have taken a conscious decision to ditch the Produnova for now because of the excessive pressure it puts on the knees. They may revist the ‘vault of death’ next year, if the knee is able to bear the load.
“In the Produnova there is a lot of load on the knee and it is much more difficult. Only 4 to 5 gymnasts have attempted it consistently in the world and for a reason. It is risky and we will not take a risk now because Dipa is making a comeback after a knee surgery. She will not attempt it in competition this year but may perhaps start training for the Produnova at the end of the year,” Nandi says.
After missing out on the Commonwealth Games spot, the blueprint for Dipa’s return at the Asiad comprised the Handspring 540, a new routine for her, which coach Nandi says has a difficulty level of 5.80. There was also an attempt to upgrade the Tsukahara 720 to 900 — 6 on the difficulty scale. This is a climbdown on Produnova’s 7, which has been downgraded as well. However, with the Asian Games around the corner there have been tweaks to the routine keeping in mind Dipa’s return to competition after a prolonged break. The Handspring 540 has been downgraded to 360. “It is a front somersault with one full turn.” Coach Nandi is not too fussed about the choice of vault routines at the moment. “The Tsukahara 720 is another routine we will focus on at the Asiad. If things go well, Dipa may attempt the Tsukahara 900 at the Asiad but at the moment it is the 720,” Nandi says.
While on the comeback trail the coach believes that 80 per cent of the battle will be mental. “The Sports Authority of India has supported us during the comeback and ensured we had everything we asked for. But what is most crucial is that Dipa needs to be mentally strong. Mind is 80 per cent. After injury there is possibility that fear may develop about getting injured again. ‘Will I miss it, will I fall, will I get injured further’. Such thoughts can enter one’s mind. If she is able to keep such thoughts out of her mind, then half the battle is won. I know she is very tough.”
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