Dipa Karmakar is trying to fit in the missing pieces of the puzzle. With the Asian Games about two months away, she is training in earnest at the Netaji Subhas Regional Coaching Centre at her hometown Agartala, Tripura. Her long-time coach Bisweshwar Nandi is by her side, but they still need a physical trainer, a physiotherapist. “We are now focusing on competition training,” she says in an interview with Lounge. “You need a proper set up. We are trying to arrange it.” Karmakar wants to make sure she gets it right. She has to get it right.
The star gymnast, who etched her name in history as the first Indian to reach the finals of a gymnastics event at the Rio Olympics 2016, is currently fighting for her career. A couple of knee surgeries following her heroics at Rio had already set her back. Then came the sucker punch: Karmakar failed an out-of-competition dope test, conducted in October 2021, and was handed a 21-month doping ban.
She tested positive for higenamine, which is described by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as: “a substance found in a variety of plant sources and herbs used for traditional medicine. Research indicates that higenamine has mixed adrenergic receptor activity, meaning it may act as a general stimulant. It may be found in some pre-workout, energy, or weight-loss products.”
“It was a very important time for me,” says Karmakar. “I was thinking about doing well at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. There were a few Olympic qualifying events as well, in 2022. At that time, when the news came in, I was completely shattered. I was thinking, ‘How did it happen? How did it enter my body?’ The first week or two, I just kept crying. I was completely out of sorts, confused.”
Even though Karmakar and her team tried hard and had samples of her supplements tested, they were unable to determine the source of the banned substance. Reluctantly, she accepted the doping report and was thus handed a reduced sentence, with the suspension ending on 10 July.
“It took me about four to six weeks to get over it,” the 29-year-old says. “My mom would be up late at night, trying to console and comfort me. It was the people around me, my family, my coach, my friends, who gave me the strength. They told me you have to fight this and come back.”
Though, as deemed by the suspension, Karmakar couldn’t train at any national facility, she made it a point to maintain her base fitness. “I started working out in the gym, I didn’t miss a single day,” she says. “I have already undergone two ACL (Anterior cruciate ligament, knee) surgeries so I was working on the rehab as well. There were a few knee niggles, a ligament tear in the ankle that I was trying to sort out.”
Hour by hour, session by session, she built her physical strength and mental resolve. “There was a time in my career, when I used to think if I make a comeback, fine. If not also its okay,” says Karmakar. “But this time is different. Ab to karna hi hai.(I have to do it.)”
Karmakar has not participated in a competitive event since 2019. And despite the forced time away from the sport she was a class apart at the selection trials for the Asian Games, which were held in Bhubaneshwar earlier this month, right after Karmakar’s suspension ended. She topped the selection trials with an all-round score of 47.05, with Pranati Das coming in second at 45.80.
“My score wasn’t great,” she says. “I am not completely satisfied. As an athlete I should not be satisfied either. Because I know there are a lot of areas I need to work on. In vaulting, I wasn’t at my hundred per cent. I was average even on the balance beam. Vault and beam are my strengths. The two apparatus that I am strongest at, I didn’t do too well. But I was competing after a long time and was still able to maintain my lead, so I’m happy about that.”
It is extremely emotional to return to the place I consider my home.🏽— Dipa Karmakar (@DipaKarmakar) July 12, 2023
Humbled by the results and thankful to all the people who have supported me along the way.
Grateful to my coach Nandi sir who helped me prepare me for the trials. #AsianGames2023 #Gymnastics #trials pic.twitter.com/3p5GSLupHO
An emotional Karmakar, who has had a lot of growing up to do over the months when she was serving out her ban, alternates between being resigned and defiant. “Who knows how my career would have panned out if I hadn’t had all the injuries?” she says, before flashing a practised smile, like she would after a tough routine, and talks of a comeback. “I am accountable to myself. If I know I have given everything I can, I’ll be happy.”
In this latest comeback, though, Karmakar is parting ways with a routine that brought her global attention and fame. During her run to the 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze and the Rio Olympics, the Indian became famous for executing the Produnova. The routine, named after Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova, involves a front handspring into two somersaults in a tucked position, and earned the sinister nickname, ‘vault of death’ for the dangers it presents if not done properly. Karmakar executed it on the biggest stage, the 2016 Rio Olympics, to finish fourth in the women’s vault final, missing the bronze medal by 0.15 points. But Karmakar’s tryst with the Produnova is over.
“I am not doing the Produnova anymore,” she says. “Gymnastics is a very tough on the body, and especially the vault puts a lot of impact on the body. I have undergone two knee surgeries so it is not possible. My training style has changed because of my injury, not age. Earlier, the volume of training was very high, I would do a lot of repetitions. I would vault seven days a week, about 400-450 vaults a week. That has gone down drastically because of my knees. Now I vault only 2-3 times a week, quality training over quantity.”
Though the gymnast doesn’t reveal which routine she is practising for, she says she is focusing more on twists. “It was not something I was great at earlier, but we are working on twisting.” The road to the Asian Games is still unclear for Indian gymnasts. Though the Gymnastics Federation of India has announced a nine-member team for the continental event, they haven’t outlined a competition schedule or announced a camp for the participants yet. For Karmakar, it is yet another chance at a title that has eluded her.
“I reached the final and finished eighth in 2010,” she says. “In 2014, I finished fourth (in vault), just missed out on a medal. In 2018, I finished fifth (on balance beam).” Karmakar qualified for the vault final as well in 2018 but could not compete in the final due to injury. Overall, India has won just one medal in gymnastics at the Asian Games—a bronze by Ashish Kumar in floor exercise at the 2010 Guangzhou Games.
“I don’t know what is going to happen at the Asian Games, but I won’t stop giving my hundred per cent,” says Karmakar. “The first day I returned to the mat after my time away, I was very emotional. But from that day itself, I knew I had to strive for peak fitness. Whatever life throws at me, I have to face it. I know I was not wrong at all. I know I had not intentionally ingested (the substance) and whatever else anyone said about me. I want to come back and prove myself.”
Karmakar has vaulted into a new phase of her career, and this is a landing she’s determined to stick.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.