At the Olympic women’s vault Sunday, most in Rio saw it as a foregone conclusion that American gymnast Simone Biles would win. Biles did indeed claim the gold, but the first person to finish out of the medals, Dipa Karmakar, also deserves acknowledgement.
Karmakar, from India, finished with a score of 15.066, .15 back of the bronze medal. But it was quite a journey just to compete.
To start, Karmakar is the first female Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, and the country’s first gymnast, period, since 1964. Since India is the world’s second-most populous country after China, one may wonder why it hasn’t had more success. The first and easiest answer is that it’s never invested in it.
Karmakar trained in a gym made of do-it-yourself equipment. Her coach used a stack of mats to create a makeshift vault and took parts from a scooter to build a springboard. During monsoon season, her gym would often flood. Karmakar also had physical limitations — she was born with flat feet, which makes gymnastics even more difficult. Over time, she worked an arch into her feet.
Karmakar is not just an Indian gymnast, but a female Indian gymnast. India is a country where women are treated as second-class citizens, raped or killed with little consequence and stopped (often violently) from receiving education. Many cries for change have come from inside and outside of India, but that change has yet to come. And, amid all that, Karmakar soared.
She gained some success and notoriety when she qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Two months before the competition the government took notice, supplying a gym for her to train. She took bronze at those games. It was the first-ever medal by an Indian gymnast.
Since then, she has continued to work, and became a popular figure in her home state of Tripura. Part of that fame is from her repeated landing of the Produnova vault, often referred to as the Vault of Death. The move includes a double somersault in mid-air and has only been completed in competition by five people. When Biles was asked if she’d try it, she told New York Magazine, “I’m not trying to die.”
Karmakar included this fault in her routine in Rio, and nearly landed it, just falling slightly on her back before popping up. Her almost-landing and almost-medaling by no means indicates that she came up short in these Olympic games.
Karmakar completed her routine the day before India’s Independence Day, a hard-fought freedom earned just 69 years ago. Hopefully her victory leads to freedoms and rights for all women of India.