I really, really wanted Dipa Karmakar to win the women’s vault competition in the Rio 2016 Olympics. I really did.
Given the hellish time difference between Rio and Mumbai, most of what I have watched was on YouTube. I admit it. Try as my tired, old self could, my bed just seemed so much more – exciting than most of the Olympics. Sure, I like watching the swimmers just as much as anyone else, and the men’s synchronized diving team gives me palpitations, but after snippets of the opening ceremonies (Hello, Tonga!!), I just gave in and waited until the next morning’s paper told me who I should watch by googling highlights.
Except for one woman.
Dipa Karmakar, the first female Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, only the second Indian ever to qualify, and the first Indian to qualify in 52 years. When she qualified for Rio, the papers went nuts, giving her front page headlines. I was completely intrigued, and followed her in the media. She’s not quite the usual gymnast – at almost five feet, she’s a bit on the taller side, and at 23 (her birthday was just a few days before the vault final) she’s a bit on the old side these days.
Dipa’s specialty is the vault, and she is only the third woman to land an extremely difficult move, the Produnova. It’s wicked hard.
Watch her here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUVLSIZV_0U It’s amazing.
Last night, the eve of India’s Independence Day, I stayed up until 11:20 p.m. to watch the gymnastics vault finals. Dipa wasn’t the only gymnast to attempt the Produnova in Rio, a 41-year old gymnast representing Bulgaria who had medaled in London in 2012 was also ready to deliver it, but landed hard and added a sommersalt to her landing. A few gymnasts later, Dipa took off and landed her first, easier vault, scoring a 14.866. Solid, but not what we all were waiting for. She then took off on her second vault, flying down the runway before flipping through the air. She landed low, though, and the judges counted that bobble as a “fall”. She still scored a 15.266, which gave her a combined score of 15.066 vaulting her into second place, behind Guilia Steingruber of Switzerland.
But the Big Kids were still to come. Simone Biles, USA, and Maria Paeska, Russia, wound up taking first and second place, respectively, and Dipa was in medal-less fourth place.
I won’t begrudge the Swiss their medal – Guilia was good, and she’s physically a throwback to the old days of gymnasts – she’s not a waif, and she’s not a compact powerhouse. If anything, she looks like a regular woman, and I don’t think you’d be clued in she’s a gymnast if you passed her on the street. I kind of like that. I also love Team USA, and Simone Biles is the most amazing gymnast I’ve seen, ever, so I have to say I’m thrilled she has gold.
But a medal by Dipa Karmakar would have meant SO much. Gymnastics isn’t one of the sports you hear about, and even in Mumbai, a large metropolis, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you if, and where the gym is where the serious gymnasts go to train. The money that is funneled into the sport here is in no way even close to what the U.S. and Russian teams put into it. There is no way the gym she trains at and prepared at for Rio is anywhere near the U.S. National Team’s home gym. So it seems to me that the fact that she was up front on the international stage going head-to-head with some of the most renowned names and well-sponsored gymnasts in the world was nothing short of amazing.
In a pretty dismal olympic showing by India this games, a woman earning a medal would have really made a statement. It would have shown the nation that women’s athletics were something great. That in beauty and grace there is strength, and national pride in women’s athletics. The support for her, women’s athletics, and for the sport, would have followed, and potentially even planted the seeds for a national gymnastics program in preparation for a new generation of Indian gymnasts. Even better, the headline would have hit on Indian Independence Day. Jai Hind, indeed.
To be sure, she’s still amazing. I’m still in awe. She’s still going to inspire little girls all over India to turn even more cartwheels in their gymkhanas, and to climb higher on the monkey bars, and to try that penny drop.
But man, I wish that one athlete I didn’t mention fondly had tripped. (Ooops – that was out loud?)
If they had given out medals for putting your heart and soul into it, Dipa would have swept the event. Solid gold.