Pranati Nayak became the second-ever Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics when she made the cut to the Tokyo Olympics via continental quota.
Dipa Karmakar’s meteoric rise and performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics sent the whole nation into a frenzy. Despite her narrowly missing out on an Olympic medal, her story was one of the greatest fairytale stories and fortunately enough, we have another great story in the making, one which some might say has already reached its climax with the Olympics being just the icing on the cake, while for the athlete, this could be the start of a sequel.
Hailing from the Jhargram municipality in West Bengal, Pranati’s father was the sole wage-earner of the family, managing to meet ends with his duty as a bus conductor, while her mother was a homemaker. So when an aspiring eight-year-old Pranati Nayak was initially rejected at the SAI centre in Kolkata for being “too thin”, any other guardian with such financial complications might have given up hope. But Pranati’s father clung on, quitting his hard-earned job to accompany his daughter for the five-hour journey to the training centre at Kolkata.
But that was just a temporary solution as, after repeated quests, she finally succeeded in finding a shelter. However, the luxury of a roof above her head came at a cost – she got caught up in the household errands of cleaning the house and washing the dishes before rushing to her training sessions. But as it usually turns out in life, there was light at the end of this tunnel.
While she fought against the daily struggles of life to keep her dreams alive, her dedication was unwavering. Retired athlete Minara Begum took notice of Pranati’s development and gauging the state of affairs of her family’s financial situation and decided to lend a helping hand. She provided the athlete accommodation, financial aid, and took care of her training regime, even giving her timely pocket money.
Under Minara’s tutelage, young Pranati’s career finally started to take off. Her dedication and persistence were finally rewarded in 2018, when she was handed a government job by virtue of the sports quota. She was finally able to tell her father to call it a day on his tiresome job. But she knew that was not the endgame, and that she had higher goals to achieve.
And so it proved to be. In 2019, she miraculously won the bronze medal at the 2019 Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships. This was no paltry achievement, but hardly anyone predicted what it would lead to. While she had many hurdles to overcome to secure a quota for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the pandemic threw a spanner in the works.
But fate works in mysterious ways.
On the countback system, Pranati was initially a reserve behind a Sri Lankan athlete. But since several Olympics qualification competitions were cancelled or postponed, and even the Asian Championships – scheduled to be held in Tokyo in May – were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pranati was reallocated continental quota by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to compete in the Olympics on the basis of her performance in the 2019 Asian Championships.
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“Since the Asian Gymnastics Championships, which was an Olympic qualification event, was cancelled due to the pandemic, the performances of the 2019 Asian Championships held in Mongolia was taken into account for the quotas. As per rules, Sri Lanka’s Elpitiya Badalge Dona Milka Geh and Pranati were given continental quotas,” said an official of the FIG.
Pranati had a brief interview with The Hindu where she said: “I was very disappointed when I couldn’t achieve the qualifying score during the 2019 World Championships and with the pandemic cancelling all events, I never imagined that I will be able to realise this dream of going to the Olympics.”
Despite what happens, let us not forget that Pranati has already achieved so much more just by qualifying for the Tokyo Games, and the voices of over 1.3 billion Indians must unite to cheer our lone warrior. As I put down my words, several boys and girls are taking that leap of faith and have started walking along her footsteps, and the nation needs more trendsetters like her.