SHRADDHA TALEKAR remembers long vacations in the “city” at her maternal uncle’s home in Thane. It was during one such trip that the uncle, Vishwas Gophan, packed her off to a gymnastics summer camp. Eighteen years on, the 27-year-old from rain-soaked Pedali village in Maharashtra’s coastal Raigad district, has made it to the India team for next month’s Artistic Gymnastics World Championship in Japan.
And, for her first chance to compete amongst the best, she thanks her supportive “Mama” (uncle) — and the special equipment he put together to pull her through the pandemic in remote Pedali.
During the lockdown, Talekar wondered if it was curtains on her career, after narrowly missing out on India selection six times by scores as low as 0.5 points in trials since 2013. That’s when Gophan, who is an environment activist and has been distributing cloth bags for free for years, fashioned a landing mat out of rags and castaway stage curtains and flags.
“The stadium where I train had hosted a Marathi Natya Sammelan some time back, so there were soft silk flags, stage curtains hanging unused. He collected all of them and stuffed them with several layers of rags and old cushions to stitch a makeshift landing mat to train,” Talekar says.
In March 2020, when the lockdown was announced, Talekar feared that her dream to compete at the highest level might remain unfulfilled. “I’d missed out narrowly earlier, and was very disheartened. I was 26, and I could see my whole career ending as competitions got cancelled, but my family pushed me to stay on track,” she says.
WATCH: Shraddha Talekar on her Uneven Bars routine
Having grown up in rural Raigad, gymnastics wouldn’t have happened, if not for the summer camp. She was a late-starter at the age of nine, and though blessed with natural agility, medals in the junior category where most elite gymnasts firm up their career decisions were not on the horizon. “My first competition in the sub-junior school nationals was on an open ground in Hubli, West Bengal. It was the best sight in my life, watching so many gymnasts compete even though I didn’t win a medal,” she says.
Facilities were primitive but for Talekar that was no less than a once-in-a-lifetime “visit to Disneyland”, she quips. Her first success came in 2011 with the state team gold at 12th National Games.
Trained at a state sports school, where movements on apparatus were broken down with weekly targets, Talekar won the Uneven Bars national gold in 2018. “I had watched so many gymnasts leave the sport and get married or start office jobs. The anxiety of never making an international team used to affect my performance in competitions and a few times cost me selection. I’d often go back home, half expecting to be told, ‘now, enough’. But my parents surprised me by telling me to first fulfill my dream of going to the World Championships, and not bother about marriage,” she says.
Talekar grew up in a joint family with her homemaker mother and father, who worked in a rice mill in the village. “My mama (uncle) was a karate player, so he told my mother that my ambition had to be the World Championship or all these years were a waste. My brother is a trekker and free-spirited, so he was supportive. Plus, after Dipa Karmakar (Commonwealth medallist and first Indian female gymnast to compete in the Olympics), everything has changed in India and how we look at gymnastics,” she says.
But to do a Karmakar, Talekar had to be in top shape. For a long time, she had ankle issues. Besides, the webbing of her big toe had a ping-pong sized gap, a result of repeated stress on the feet and dislocation. She used the lockdown to strengthen her legs and lug around home-made equipment — baby bars, improvised foam mat and a locally carved wooden balance beam-top for handstands.
Meditation-backed visualisation and extensive strength work also helped in making the transition to real apparatus smooth once gymnasiums reopened. During the trials at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Stadium, her double pike dismount on the bars “felt seamless” and that showed in the points — 44.25 to go up to third in all-around standings.
Though the two Olympic gymnasts, Karmakar and Pranati Nayak, are out of action due to injuries and rehab, Talekar reckons she is at the peak of her own game. “It’s about staying motivated despite age and learning from younger gymnasts, too. I really look upto Uneven Bars Olympic champion Nina Derwael who won gold at Tokyo. She’s 21 and single-handedly pulled Belgium into the team finals, and her skills are stunning,” she says.
Even as she nurses her disappointments at missing out all these years, Talekar finds calm in academics, and is on the verge of her fourth degree, including an MA in Economics besides pursuing a Master’s in Physical Education. “But it’s the World Championship where I want to give my everything. They say gymnastics is only for youngsters. But I’ve never felt so ready to succeed,” she says.