Out of the vault: No training for a year, Pranati Nayak set for surprise Tokyo leap

Pranati Nayak is in line to win a continental quota to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. Pranati Nayak

Pranati Nayak's next major competition was supposed to arrive in 14 months. As it turns out, it's little over 80 days away. The 26-year-old gymnast from West Bengal is in line for a continental quota at the Olympics, after the pandemic-induced cancellation of the Asian Championships, scheduled in Hangzhou, China. While the news itself has surprised her beyond belief, she has a more pressing problem on her hands: She is grievously short of training.

Pranati hasn't been able to train at the SAI Kolkata facility for a year now. The senior Indian Railways clerk is waiting to hear officially from the world body of her sport - FIG -- confirming her Olympic spot so she can shake off some rust and resume her training routine at the SAI facility, which is currently shut. The letter would also allow her to apply for leave from office, where she's manning a 9-5 duty, five days a week and a celebratory scoop of ice cream.

"Ki je magic hoye gelo (It feels like magic)," Pranati exclaims, referring to her surprise qualification. "SAI Kolkata, where I train, has been closed for a year because of Covid-19 and now there's a lockdown here (West Bengal) as well. I have been told that I will be allowed special permission to train from next week. I'll feel more assured once I receive an official confirmation of my qualification. The major task now is catching up on a year's training in two months."

For a sport that mandates militant practice, Pranati doesn't have a personal physio. Nor funding support. She pays for her living expenses in the industrial suburb of Dum Dum, in Kolkata, her diet, competition needs, and also provides for her family back in Medinipur district of West Bengal out of her salary. Her father worked as a bus driver in the state transport service until five years ago. She was part of the Target Olympic Podium scheme for a year and a half until the 2018 Asian Games and is likely to be drafted back into the support programme for the little time that remains until the Games now. "I've been attending zoom sessions conducted by SAI, which has helped me maintain some sort of fitness schedule," she says. "I've gained around two kilograms, which shouldn't be a problem once I begin proper training."

The lockdown situation forced Pranati to return home to Medinipur for almost the whole of last year. In the absence of gym and equipment, her father fastened bamboos with ropes to trees, to set up makeshift balance beams as well as chin-up and pull-up bars outside her home. Pushed by necessity, she also converts storage boxes and wooden stools at home into training props. "I also tied ropes on windows to swing. I was just using all means I could to stay fit and eating whatever was cooked at home. Just rice and dal, and sometimes fish. I never liked fast food - chowmein, rolls and deep fried snacks - even as a child. It's helped me stay in shape as an athlete. It could be partly because in our village we have to travel quite a distance to even find these items," she says. "But the one thing I really love is ice cream."

A bronze medallist at the 2019 Senior Asian Artistic Gymnastic Championships, Pranati is the second reserve behind Sri Lanka's Elpitiya Badalge Dona Milka Gehani for the Asian quota. The Asian Championships (an Olympic qualifying event) scheduled for May 29-June 1 being called off led to spots being re-allocated to the continent based on the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastic Championship results in Mongolia. Pranati scored 14.200 in her first attempt but a neutral deduction in the second ruled her out of the finals in her pet vault event, in the Ulaanbaatar competition. She finished 27th in the vault qualification.

India's biggest name in the sport, Dipa Karmakar had to skip the World Championship that year over an aggravated right knee injury, which knocked her out of contention for the Asian quota. At the 2018 Asian Games, Dipa couldn't qualify for the final while Pranati finished eighth. "When Dipa didi made the final in Rio," Pranati says, "I remember staying up till midnight and watching it live at the SAI hostel. My heart was in my mouth." The Agartala girl who was India's only gymnast at 2016 Games has shut the door on a Tokyo appearance and now has the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games chalked out as her next major tournaments. They were Pranati's goals too, until calls from fellow Indian gymnast and friend, Aruna Reddy woke her up a couple of days ago to the unlikely piece of news.

"I was fast asleep at home in Medinipur last week and woke up to see some 10 missed calls and a few messages from Aruna. She sounded excited and told me I have a good chance of qualifying for Tokyo. I soon began hearing about it from others as well before my coach Minara ma'am told me that I have qualified. My father is dying to share the news with everyone in our village but I want it to be officially conveyed to me before we can celebrate. I'm filled with joy. But I'm just holding it all in."

When she started out in the sport as six or seven-year-old in school, easing into splits, Pranati had little idea that what she was learning was in fact gymnastics. "I thought it was yoga," she says. "As a girl who grew up in a village, I climbed trees, jumped into ponds and have never stopped myself because of fear. If I'm afraid of something, I keep doing it over and over again. It's a habit. Gymnastics everyone kept telling me is a scary sport with a high chance of injuries. But my mind was asking me, "Bhoy kisher" (What do you fear)?

For much of her adolescence, Pranati pictured herself in a sparkly, rhinestone-embellished leotard at an Olympic Games. She participated in her first-ever competition with a borrowed leotard belonging to a senior gymnast. "The day before my event I realised I needed a costume," she says. "Until then I didn't know it was necessary. Whenever I travel abroad for tournaments these days, the only item I use my savings is to buy myself costumes. I got five of them at a good bargain in China during the 2014 World Championships and I bought four more when I was in Stuttgart for the 2018 World Cup. Now I often pass on my costumes to juniors when they need it."

Her coach of 15 years, former gymnast Minara Begum, who picked up Pranati as a young school kid and has been mothering her since, worries about her student's missed training for a year. "One cannot train for gymnastics through Zoom. Online classes only work for school and college students, not sport," she points out. "Especially in gymnastics, where you have to get a feel of the equipment and the coach has to watch over you. Pranati hasn't really been able to train, barring two weeks when SAI had opened last year before closing again. Time is short, she has to start slow and pick up pace. She needs to have a physio with her when she starts training, otherwise her body may not be able to take the load. It's almost like starting from zero."

As an eight-year-old, Pranati slept on the floor of Kolkata's Salt Lake stadium while her parents took turns to stay with her so she could continue to train. They often had to choose between meals to forgo to sustain themselves. Soon, on Minara's insistence, she was allowed to move into the SAI campus.

"I've trained Pranati like I would a student and took care of her like my daughter. A good coach should know what their student's biggest needs are because that could decide how much or how well they can train. For Pranati, I knew her family's finances were very poor. Her father couldn't have afforded to pay for to live in the city, train and get an education. I decided to take up her complete responsibility so she could focus on training. People sometimes taunt me, 'India mein gymnastics khelne se kya fayda?' (What's the point of being a gymnast in India anyway)? Pranati is my answer."