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Bend it like Ashish

Aabhas Sharma  |  New Delhi 

The medal-winner says there are many more upcoming gymnasts in the country

You would expect an athlete to be elated after winning half a dozen medals at the National Games. But Ashish Kumar is far from satisfied with his performance at the recent National Games in Ranchi. “I won only two gold medals; I could have done far better,” says the Allahabad-based gymnast. Kumar has come a long way from being just another gymnast to India’s best gymnast. “Don’t call me that,” he says, “If I was the best I would have won all the gold medals.”

Kumar doesn’t like to play the blame-game but insists that if he had better equipment, he could have done better. “The equipment at the National Academy in Allahabad is terrible,” he says, without mincing words. He says his coaches have reminded the authorities of this time and again but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

His journey as a gymnast began in the late 1990s when he joined the UK Mishra Academy in Allahabad. It was his brother who initiated him into the sport. Born into a middle-class family, Kumar has had it tough. He has seen his father, who works in the railways, make a lot of sacrifices to help him realise his dream as a gymnast. “He commuted over 100 km daily so that I could live in Allahabad with my family,” he recalls. Now posted in Kanpur, his father continues to do so. When Kumar won medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, no one could have been happier than his family. “They have seen me struggle a lot and have had to make a lot of compromises because of my career,” says the 20-year-old.

Life has certainly changed for Kumar since his medal haul. He was the first Indian gymnast to win a medal in the discipline at the Asian Games. Indians aren’t known for their flexibility — especially when they compete against the Chinese or the Russians — but Kumar says he received basic coaching at the academy in Allahabad. There was no TV to watch gymnastics, so he started watching top gymnasts on the internet. He says he tries to understands the moves and then practice them till he is dead tired. “Practice is the key in any sport, but in gymnastics it’s particularly important,” he explains.

For him, each day counts as he prepares to work towards his Olympic dream. He will soon be off to Jaipur to participate in the senior gymnastics championships. And then in October, there are the World Championships in Japan which will decide his Olympic fate. At times, he feels dejected when he sees the authorities’ lack of interest in the sport. “I have been asking for new equipment since December but nothing has come through,” he says. The floors of the academy in Allahabad have cracked, and the equipment has worn out because of wear and tear. But he isn’t deterred. “I will continue to work hard and give it my best shot,” he says. However, he adds that youngsters interested in the sport will be disappointed if they don’t improve. Are there youngsters keen on gymnastics? “Oh, you will be surprised to see the number of talented youngsters in Allahabad alone,” he says with a smile. Kumar’s achievements so far have all been against the odds. And if he wants to make it — forget winning — to the London Olympics, it looks like he will have to continue doing so.

First Published: Sat, March 12 2011. 00:43 IST