After the high, heartbreak: that has been the story of the past few months for 20-year-old gymnast Ashish Kumar. His dream of qualifying for the London Olympics is as good as dead.
The Allahabad lad had made history at the 2010 Commonwealth Games by winning two medals, a silver and a bronze, becoming the first-ever Indian to achieve a podium finish in an international gymnastics event.
He followed that outstanding performance up with another medal – a bronze – at the Guangzhou Asian Games. Naturally, the talented gymnast emerged as the sole hope of a billion-plus Indians, who now looked ahead to an Olympic medal from the youngster.
Unfortunately, Ashish is out of the Olympic race. He could not sustain the requisite intensity in the qualification tournament in Tokyo and missed the bus.
Understandably, Ashish is a dejected man today. The gymnast blames the very training regimen that was once being touted as meticulous and completely in sync with what the doctor ordered for the London Olympics.
With his 2012 Olympic dream now lying shattered, the youngster will have to start afresh so that he is ready to hit another career high by the time the next Olympic Games are held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Just after the last Asian Games, where his strong showing indicated that he could launch a fair bid to qualify for London 2012, Ashish wanted to join a training camp right away. But the first camp did not get underway until four months later. Time was lost.
He also wanted an imported state-of-the-art practice equipment to be brought to the Allahabad Sports Academy. But the process took a few months. He lost some more time. “Had I started my training in time I would have been in a much better position in the qualifiers,” he says.
Along with compatriots Rakesh Patra, Ikrar Hasan and Alok Ranjan, Ashish flew to London in the first week of July for special training under Russian-born American coach Vladimir Chertkov. For almost two months the team camped at the Basildon Sporting Village in Essex and the boys followed a strict regimen.
The purpose of the camp was to enable Ashish in particular to make the Olympic cut. The Tokyo World Championships were around the corner (October 7 to 16). But the strict regimen enforced by the foreign coach led to fatigue.
Chertkov had successfully guided the Indian gymnasts in the Commonwealth Games and the subsequent Asian Games. So expectations from him and his boys were quite high.
“In London we would start our training session at 12 noon and continue till seven in the evening. There would be a one-hour lunch break from four to five in the afternoon. But training immediately after lunch did not suit us at all,” Ashish recalls.
The camp, which started on July 8, continued till August 30. Before the World Championships in Tokyo, the Indian team took part in the World Cups in Belgium and Slovakia.
Unfortunately, due to the hectic training schedule, Ashish suffered a burnout of sorts. “Tough training is important but if the body is not ready to take the extra burden, then it isn’t fruitful. We went through heavy conditioning. Moreover, the practice time of 12 noon to 7 pm didn’t suit our bodies. I have always trained in the morning,” says Ashish.
When he returned to Delhi to prepare for the Tokyo qualifiers, Ashish had to spend a lot of time with his physio to get his body back to normal. “Actual training took a back seat,” he recalls. “My body was tired and stiff. I was worried I would have to skip Tokyo.”
But despite the hiccups, Ashish gave a good account of himself in the Olympic qualifier. To qualify for the Olympic test event, he needed to score 80 points; he fell short by a whisker, totalling 79.4. “Had I got even one point more on the floor, pommel horse or vault, I would have qualified for the Olympic test event,” he says.
Chertkov has since been relieved of his duties – he left India amid much acrimony – and the Indian gymnasts are in a limbo.
However, Sports Authority of India (SAI) director-general Desh Deepak Verma has a different point of view. “I know what Ashish must be feeling. But success has many fathers and failure has none. Under the same coach, we won medals in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. The coach had a particular training plan and that is exactly what he executed in London,” he says.
But that is water under the bridge. There is little that Ashish can now do other than hope that he can regain lost ground in the months ahead. After the Olympic qualifiers, he participated in the South Central Asian championship in Bangladesh last December. The gymnastics calendar has more than 20 international competitions every year, including eight World Cups, Challengers and Grand Prix tournaments.
But Ashish is unsure how many tournaments he would be able to participate in. “The gymnastics federation is dormant. The fixtures and tournaments for players are being finalised by the secretaries. Had the federation been functioning properly, my name would have been proposed as a wild
card entry in the London Olympics,” he rues.
Chertkov had joined the Indian team in 2009 when a camp was organised in Pune for the Commonwealth Games. He was assisted by Praveen Sharma, Ashok Mishra, Nirbhay Singh and DK Rathore, Ashish’s first coach.
Rathore invested a lot of effort and time in grooming Ashish. Sometimes he went to pick Ashish up from his home as well. “Sometimes I would oversleep and Rathore Sir would come and drag me out of bed,” say Ashish.
He joined the Sports Academy in Allahabad in 1994 and his first competition was the school Nationals in 2001. In 2003, he participated in the Tulip Peter International Championship in Hungry where he won three gold medals. “I had prepared for one and a half years for the Commonwealth Games. I was expecting a gold medal but unfortunately I had to settle for bronze,” says Ashish.
But this certainly isn’t the end of the road for the young gymnast. He will be back, he says. We