By Deepika S
Moments before Dipa Karmakar’s Produnova launched her temporarily into second place during the women’s vault finals at Rio, I was so nervous I tried flipping channels to calm myself down.
I do a decent job of handling stress in my daily life, but you wouldn’t believe it if you saw me watching women’s sports, either in person or on TV. The moment Japan’s Kenzo Shirai finished his routine in the final event of the men’s floor exercises on Sunday night and the cameras were all over Diego Hypolito and Arthur Mariano weeping with abandon having won the silver and bronze for Brazil, I began sniffling too. Partly because the men’s joy was infectious (I challenge anyone who watched it to tell me they were unmoved), but mostly because I was tensing in anticipation of what would come next: the women’s vault.
It helped that the women were considerably more restrained in their emotion, right from when the cameras panned over them all lined up and waiting to be announced. And I was glad it was the vault, where the women could just be athletes, and wouldn’t have to sandwich flouncy stuff into their routine to ‘entertain’, like they do during floor exercises and while on the beam (the men are spared this. If you’re a woman, you can even lose points if your undies are showing. Sharda Ugra, in this superb piece on Karmakar, writes “She would rather throw herself into a routine without any frills or coquetteish moves — just like the men in their floor exercises, minus even the music. That idea in women’s gymnastics is, however, almost heretical”).
Twenty-three-year-old Karmakar looked significantly less nervous than she did last Sunday during the qualifying rounds. America’s incredible 19-year-old Simone Biles beamed and waved excitedly, while 16-year-olds Wang Yan of China and Shallon Olsen of Canada’s nervous beams were bright and encouraging, nevertheless. All of this calmed me down. Temporarily.
Until recently, I believed Mary Kom was the only one who could make my composure disintegrate like a Marie biscuit dipped in tea. But as I’ve realised since, it’s watching sportswomen at work that does this to me. Cricketer Veda Krishnamurthy’s powerful six that went into the stands during a friendly match at Chinnaswamy Stadium ahead of the Women’s World T20 in March; Harmanpreet Kaur’s two successive sixes in India’s opening T20 match against Bangladesh just days later; US soccer captain Carli Lloyd’s crazy goal from the half line at the finals of the FIFA Women’s Word Cup 2015; Ethiopian runner Etenesh Diro in the heats for the 3,000 metre steeplechase (tripped over competitors, had a fall, flung off her right shoe, then flung off her right sock, made it to the finals) — these are just some of those moments.
As someone who has never been very good at sports, I wonder why my immediate reaction to great sportswomen is to well up with tears. Maybe it’s an acknowledgement of the gruelling training and mental strength it must take to play in a world event. Perhaps it’s awe, perhaps it’s pride and delight at women being able to excel in fields we don’t expect them to, using their bodies (how often do you associate women’s bodies with breaking a hammer throw world record, or launching off a vaulting table, using muscle power to soar into the air for a near-impossible series of twists and somersaults?). Perhaps its nervousness on their behalf. Or maybe all of them at once, I don’t know. But there’s something heroic, and inspiring, and deeply enjoyable about watching sportswomen fight for their place, like 21-year-old PV Sindhu did day before yesterday in her win against Michelle Li of Canada, fighting hard for every point, nervousness and determination radiating off her wiry frame.
Which brings me to Dipa Karmakar, the latest woman to make me want to cry. Last Sunday, I sat crouched on a corner of my sofa, flipping impatiently between the women’s artistic gymnastics and women’s archery qualifiers live on STAR Sports. Waiting to watch Karmakar while watching Bombayla Devi Laishram’s intense face try to hold it together for the Indian archery team was more than I could handle. “I need a beer,” I mumbled to my partner, who said nothing as I headed to the fridge. A beer down, and with still only teasing glimpses of Karmakar on TV, I told him I had an embarrassing secret. “I get really nervous during women’s sports.” “I know,” he said gently.
Setting aside my frustration at not seeing both of Karmakar’s vaults live during the qualifiers (STAR Sports only seemed to show a recorded version of her Produnova afterwards, but not her other vault) and my awe later on seeing this video of Karmakar during practice, I was thrilled that she’d made it to the finals as the first Indian gymnast to ever do so.
Just before her first vault in the final, Karmakar had her usual look of mild worry, and stopped to exhale, as if to calm herself down. Long-sleeved leotards hide her superb arm muscles; she may be small (4 ft 11 inches, to be precise), but in practice clothes, she looks like she’s made of pure muscle. I wondered how much she weighed as she began to run, thundering down towards the vaulting table, hurtling off it into a series of twists before landing. She kept her worried face on until she went into her second vault, the Produnova, for which she’s now a household name. Luckily for me, there was no time to react to the vaults because they were done before I had time to blink.
It’s only the slow-mo replays that bring home the enormity of the skill required to pull off a gymnastics move — the height to which Karmakar jumped on that vault, the impossible number of spins she pulled off before landing on her feet and then her bum, which may have affected her score, but I didn’t care. I’d just witnessed her pull off something positively supernatural.
But truthfully, as someone with little nationalist pride, I was equally thrilled to see the other competitors, like the incredible Oksana Chusovitina, the Uzbek gymnast who at 41, attempted the Produnova in the finals alongside Karmakar. Chusovitina, who was lighter on her feet as she ran to the vaulting table, didn’t quite complete her aerial somersaults in time to land neatly, and ended with a somersault on the landing mat — not an ideal way to end a Produnova, but executed with the clear confidence of a gymnast who’s been pulling off tricky moves for years. Of course all of the eight women in the finals were fantastic to watch: tiny Yan, who looks 11 instead of 16, was gorgeous in execution but had none of the sheer power of Giulia Steingruber, the Swiss gymnast who edged Karmakar out to win the bronze, or the style of Maria Paseka, the Russian gymnast who won the silver.
Karmakar was in the running for a medal until Paseka finished; the latter’s score placed her over Steingruber and Karmakar, with just Simon Biles left to go. I think I knew then who’d be the likely winner: Biles, who now has three golds and a bronze, has the strength and perfection of a superhuman. Biles — muscly, powerful, near-perfect, looking almost bored between vaults — slayed her competitors that night, beating them by a large margin. It also cracks me up that Biles — possessed of a gymnast’s incredible muscle that can’t be disguised by the permanent little-girl look they are expected to sport — won a gold medal with a hilarious bow perched high on her head.
After Karmakar’s two superb vaults in the final, while she waited on the side for her score — before finding out that she’d placed second and eventually fourth —with the cameras on her, her wide-eyed nervousness had gone. She’d pulled it off. She smiled with confidence, and waved at the cameras with mild swag. Dipa Karmakar had a very real shot at winning an Olympic medal, and that’s all I need to know.