It has been just a little over five years since Dipa Karmakar vaulted into the history books. But the generation she inspired is already here. Like the rest of India, a 13-year-old Protistha Samanta from Kolkata was glued to the television screen as Karmakar dazzled to a historic fourth-place finish in the vault finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Last weekend, Samanta took her first steps in the big league. Making her senior international debut at the FIG Apparatus World Cup, held in Cairo, Egypt, from 17-20 March, she missed the podium by a whisker. Now 18, Samanta, dressed in a red leotard, held her own against more experienced athletes to finish fourth with a score of 12.82, 0.03 points behind bronze medalist Laurie Denommee of Canada. While Slovenia’s Tiasa Kysselef won gold with a score of 13.18, 46-year-old Oksana Chusovitina, a two-time Olympic medalist, claimed silver (12.95). “I was a little nervous since it was my first international tournament,” Samanta tells Lounge. “There were gymnasts from various countries and I was fifth in the qualifiers. Making the cut (top 8) for the finals gave me a lot of confidence.”
Samanta’s gymnastics journey started at her home in Howrah, Kolkata on a whim. When she was three years old, her parents spotted her swinging on a couple of bars they had put up on the terrace and decided to send her for gymnastics training. “No one in my family is into sports,” says Samanta, who won four gold medals at the 2019 Khelo India Youth Games. “My father works in a private company and mother is a housewife. Earlier, they were reluctant about me pursuing gymnastics only because they were scared I would fall or get hurt. But when they saw me get so involved in the sport and loving it, they were okay with it and encouraged me to achieve more.”
As luck would have it, the landlord of their rented home in Kolkata was related to Bishweshwar Nandi, a former India international who shot into limelight for guiding Karmakar to glory. The Samanta family had to jump through some bureaucratic hoops and obtain a No Objection Certificate from the West Bengal sports ministry so she could train with Nandi at his government-run training facility at the Netaji Subhas Regional Coaching Centre in Agartala, and represent the state of Tripura. After completing her Standard 10 in school, Samanta shifted to Agartala with her mother.
The fact that Bengali is a major spoken language in Tripura helped her ease into her new environs. Though Samanta, who is an only child, is yet to get over her shyness, she has already formed a bond with her idol Karmakar. “Dipadidi is one of the reasons I want to specialise in vault too,” said Samanta. “I get to train with her and watch her closely. Even if she is feeling down, or feels like she might not be able to complete her task, she pushes herself to do it.” This, she believes, has been one of the biggest lessons during her short time in Agartala. Though Samanta has been on the centre’s roster for three years, she missed a chunk of her training due to the covid-19 pandemic. The students at Nandi’s gym had kept fit during the lockdown through online conditioning classes, which helped them get back to the earlier level within a month.
“I haven’t been able to train her as well I would have liked to because of lockdowns,” says Nandi, who believes it is still very early to predict just which way Samanta’s young career could swing. “Gymnastics is a high-risk sport, there are no guarantees,” he says. “When I see someone who has that anger, determination, those are the only gymnasts I push. Because some kids are scared and they never grow out of it, so there is no point in pushing them. As of now, I think Protistha has that drive. But I will only truly know how good she is once I increase the difficulty level.”
During the Cairo World Cup, Samanta’s first routine, consisting of a front pike into half turn, had a difficulty value of 4.0 and the second was a Tsukahara with a 360 degree turn, with a difficulty of 4.4. According to the plan Nandi has charted for the teenager, she should be doing routines with a 5.0 difficulty in a year. “It could be faster if she opens up a little bit,” he says. “She’s still very young and quite scared of me. She usually keeps quiet but talks a little bit with Dipa; Dipa is also very fond of her. Sometimes I feel she doesn’t tell me when she has a niggle or is in pain, because she thinks I will shout at her. But it is crucial in our sport because I don’t want to push someone in training and aggravate injury.”
A push into their seniors will also be a more expensive prospect for the family. Nandi believes gymnasts have to focus a lot more on nutrition and quality costumes, which can be quite expensive, when they switch to senior international tournaments. “My father has invested a lot of money into my career,” says Samanta. “Right now, I also have support from the Welspun Foundation and the Khelo India scholarship.”
Nandi, however, believes that she has handled the transition to seniors quite well so far. “Fourth place is a very good result for someone playing their first international tournament. Whatever I had taught her, she executed it perfectly,” he says. Even in India, gymnastics is getting more competitive every day. Samanta made the cut for the Cairo World Cup and the Baku World Cup, which begins on 31 March, through national selection trials. In the six-member team (men and women) India fielded in Cairo, she was the one who came closest to a podium finish. The journey ahead will, hopefully, be a long one if Samanta keeps up the desire to follow in Karmakar’s footsteps. She has certainly made a promising start.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.