When eight-year-old Aruna Reddy and her father B Narayana Reddy made their way to Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad, for her first gymnastics lesson back in 2002, little did she know that she is embarking on a life-changing journey.
The 23-year-old, who created history by becoming the first Indian to win an individual medal at the Gymnastics World Cup in 2018, started out by learning Karate at the age of three, much at the insistence of her father. In the five years that followed, Reddy earned a black belt to her credit. Her coach at the time, Balasubramanium, suggested that Reddy now be trained in gymnastics as, in his opinion, her body and flexibility lent themselves to the sport. “We had never heard of gymnastics, but my father was instantly drawn to the sport once we paid a visit to the stadium, and understood what it entails. I, on the other hand, was addled,” says Reddy over a call from Ambala, where she is currently training.
From stomach aches to nausea, the gymnast clearly remembers trying every excuse in the book to bunk training, but her father would have none of it. Forced to comply, Reddy began training under Swarnalatha. “I was asked to perform an element or two on the balancing beam, but as a child, I feared falling from a significant height, and couldn’t move an inch. I was punished every week,” she smiles, recalling her initial training. That’s not to say that Reddy didn’t learn at class, but, she never eyed a career in the sport. However, that changed in 2005 when she clinched gold at a vault event. “Sometimes, an achievement is all it takes for you to take opportunities seriously. This is what happened to me. I was craving for more post the national medal,” she tells us.
Pillars, through thick and thin
Reddy confesses that it was her father’s encouragement, and a strong belief in her abilities that helped her envision her path. “He was my world, and that fell apart when I lost him to a cardiac arrest in 2010. He invested all his time and energy into making sure I trained well, and was my go-to person for every matter. We had a connection like no other. I couldn’t be happier to see my father’s chest swell with pride when I bagged my first national medal.”
While her father was her backbone, Reddy’s skills were polished by Brij Kishore, under whom she trained from 2008-2018, and also bagged the bronze at the World Cup. “He was my second father, and supported me through the good and the bad. There were times when I would express a desire to train on his only day off, and he would not think twice before accompanying me to the stadium,” she recalls.
A few months before Reddy won her first international medal, Brij was diagnosed with blood cancer. In fact, as the bright-eyed gymnast embraced the moment, he was undergoing chemotherapy. “Soon after returning to India, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I visited the hospital to celebrate my win. But he couldn’t speak; all I could see was tears rolling down his cheeks,” the gymnast tells us, adding, “That medal was for Brij sir. I am glad that it gave my coach the recognition he deserved.”
Unfortunately, Brij passed away a few months after Reddy’s glory. She defines the time post his departure as ‘terrifying’. “I couldn’t process what was happening. First, I lost my father who was my biggest cheerleader, and then, my coach, my idol. My support system crashed.”
This is when Manoj Rana, whom she had met through Brij Kishore, took her under his wing, and Reddy found hope again. To this day, he remains her mentor.
From facing a financial crunch post her father’s death and navigating the politics in her field, to losing friends and dealing with dwindling performances, Reddy has tackled every curve ball life threw her way. Today, as she puts it, she is “A much stronger human being, physically and emotionally.”
“I used to hold my father’s finger and walk, but post his death, I had to learn to live independently. Even a task as simple as taking a bus to and fro was nerve-wracking. But one grows up, and now, I value every progress I make.”
Reddy has proved her mettle in the sport, but hopes that players begin getting recognised from the time they bag a national rank. “When I won bronze, I saw the difference in the way I was being spoken about. I often think,‘I was working hard since 2005, but no one paid attention; now that I have an international medal, things are different’. It’s elevating and demotivating at the same time,” she says. According to her, her seniors Ashish Kumar and Dipa Karmarkar were pivotal in increasing awareness around the sport, as their performances made the country sit up and take notice. “I wouldn’t say that every citizen of India knows about gymnastics today, but the past decade has seen a huge improvement,” Reddy admits.
Reddy suffered a career-threating ACL tear in the World Cup event in October 2018, which resulted in the gymnast running out of qualifying tournaments for the Tokyo Olympics. She underwent surgery in December 2018, and began rehabilitation, only to return to a world platform (World Championships in Stuttgart) in seven months. While she made it to the Indian team post the trials, she suffered the same injury a day before the World Championships, and had to step back r, owing to her surgery in November 2019.
After taking some time to recuperate, she began training online in April, post which she got back to training outdoors at a local centre in Hyderabad along with Rana. However, as the gyms continued to be closed in the city, the duo moved to train in Ambala in August, and plan to stay there until October. “My injury forced me to take a break to focus on my health. Even if the world wasn’t facing a pandemic, I would have had to keep my training restricted. We are taking this year to heal, and then continue rehabilitation. My ultimate goal is to participate in the 2024 Olympics. And even though this injury is keeping me away from the field, I am determined to bounce back and prove myself, this time for Rana sir,” she signs off.