Pranati Nayak went to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia for the Asian Gymnastics Championships, relieved in the knowledge that she had successfully accomplished two of her four targets for 2019: build a house for her family and take half the responsibility of her elder sister’s wedding.
Her father, a state transport bus driver in West Bengal until 2017, had saved up as much as he could, before taking up a smaller job in an office the last two years as he neared the age of 60 while Pranati (26) took care of the rest. Her third task was a lifetime’s dream — winning an international medal which had eluded the West Bengal gymnast.
And Friday, Pranati stuck two clean landings scoring 13.384 on the vault and picked a commendable bronze, behind China (14.350) and Japan (13.584) at the Senior Asian Championships, 20 years after she first took to the sport in Midnapore.
Pranati is India’s third major vaulting medallist after Dipa Karmakar and Aruna Reddy, though her biggest challenge of 2019 will be the World Championships later this year.
“It’s a big day for me, because I knew I had it in me to win medals internationally. But everything I do is for my parents. They’ve not had an easy life, and I want to ensure my father gets comfortable. He’s driven a bus for many years and now I want life to be a little easy for him. My parents don’t have a son, but I told them I was enough to take care of them,” she said, her first thoughts post winning, racing to her parents back in Midnapore.
Picked by long-time coach Minara Begum after a school coach recommended her, Pranati moved to Kolkata in her pre-teens, with her coach taking complete care of her living expenses. “My parents couldn’t have afforded my sports career, Minara ma’am took care of my stay, food, other expenses to pocket money when I saw that’s what teenagers got,” she said.
Medals had come early – at the sub-juniors in 2008 and she even travelled to Russia, but she couldn’t get to the podium since Kolkata had limitations. “Even maintaining a proper diet was difficult. And I had to share equipment with dozens of others, it’s not fair to hog time on the apparatus. So, I’d be in the Delhi IG stadium camp with Gymnova equipment and get good scores, but return to Kolkata and again drop my level,” she said.
Unlike Dipa, who from the outset focussed on specialising on the vault, or Aruna who is extremely cerebral, Pranati had to ensure she was proficient on all four apparatus if she had to make the Indian teams. At the Incheon Asiad, she made the all-around finals but it was the 8th place at Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast last year that jolted her out of her career plateau.
“I made the finals, but missed on landings and that broke my heart. Then, there were all those times finishing 4th in Asian championships. So when I made the finals here at Mongolia, that night Minara ma’am and our manager Rohit Jaiswal, sat me down at 1 am and told me, this is my chance to do the toughest thing in gymnastics — be consistent,” she said.
On Friday, she scaled back her ambition — Tsukahara 360 back double twist and a front 360 somersault pike with half turn — both at difficulty 4.8. “My landings and spins were perfect today,” she said.
An Indian Railways employee, she has also put all her earnings into the house soon after she became the senior national champion in Pune earlier this year. On Friday, her cash prize was $200 (Rs 14,000).
A gymnast who takes off on strong legs and is equally adept at other apparatus owing to her strong shoulders, Pranati is coach Minara’s biggest success story yet, coming just a few months after she retired in February from SAI.
“When we did gymnastics in school in Midnapore, I didn’t know it was called gymnastics. We thought it was jogasan, but this was more hard-work,” said Pranati.
Her coach Minara saw rare dedication in Pranati even at the tender age of 6 or 7. “She never refused a workout and always wanted to practice,” said Minara, recalling days when she had to pester SAI to let the young girl stay and then arrange her stay outside until she was taken.
Minara has been a constant mentor through Pranati’s struggles of near-medal misses. “This time, I told her don’t even think about the medal, just focus on your routine,” she said, delirious that her years of hard work finally yielded a winner.
Minara considers herself lucky that she was encouraged by her parents to be a gymnast around 30 years ago. “It should have been difficult because I was a girl from a Muslim family in Chandannagar. But my father was a footballer, and both he and my mother never stopped me after I told them I liked this sport. God ko thanks, Allah ko thanks, they backed me as an athlete and then coach,” she said.
The athlete will celebrate with ice cream tonight. Pranati said, “I’m always happy because I keep roaming the world for tournaments. But I think today my parents will also be happy. Woh khush, main bhi khush (They’re happy, and so am I).”