Despite snub, gymnastics coach Minara Begum ready for next Olympic challenge

Coach Minara Begum (left) has been the mainstay behind Pranati Nayak's success and qualification to the Tokyo Olympics as the lone Indian gymnast. Photo credit: SportSavour
Coach Minara Begum (left) has been the mainstay behind Pranati Nayak's success and qualification to the Tokyo Olympics as the lone Indian gymnast. Photo credit: SportSavour

After Dipa Karmakar at Rio 2016, Pranati Nayak became the second Indian gymnast to book a spot at the Olympics. But Minara Begum, Pranati’s childhood coach and the mainstay behind her success, will not be accompanying Pranati to the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, coach Lakhan Manohar Sharma will be with Pranati at the Games.

Hurt but undeterred, Minara ploughs on in her quest to groom rookies into Olympians. “I treated her like my daughter and made sure that I focussed on her all-round development as a person,” said Minara on Pranati’s progress.

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Pranati hailed from a family in which dreaming of a career as an athlete was a luxury. But Minara did not let Pranati’s dream die. She took her under her wings, arranged for her accommodation and even took on the responsibility of her education while teaching her the nuances of gymnastics.

While teaching her the nuances of gymnastics, coach Minara Begum (right) ensured Pranati Nayak's education did not suffer.
While teaching her the nuances of gymnastics, coach Minara Begum (right) ensured Pranati Nayak’s education did not suffer.

Minara always wanted her students to get the most out of opportunities that could shape them into successful athletes. Perhaps, it is a remembrance of her formative years when lack of opportunity prevented Minara from realising her potential.

Small-town girl

Hailing from a humble background in Chandannangar near Kolkata, Minara got hooked to gymnastics at age seven when there was a gymnastics demonstration in her locality. The performance left a mark on the young mind, so when a gymnastics club opened near her home, she was keen.

Minara’s mother had reservations due to the misconception that gymnastics meant “broken bones” and a lifetime of injuries. Her father backed the decision and soon enough Minara queued up at the club with a dream in her eyes.

“I would return from school and wait impatiently to start training. I never thought of what gymnastics would give me. Whatever I did was out of love and passion for the sport,” said Minara.

At 10, Minara participated in the Nationals, and the achievement got her featured in ‘Anandabazar Patrika, a leading Bengali daily. This changed her mother’s outlook. From then on, even if Minara thought of skipping practice, her mother would not allow her to do so.

From Vivekananda Smriti Samiti to NIS

With time, Minara graduated from one National to the other, one club to the other and finally from Chandannagar to Kolkata. She joined the Khudiram Anushilan Kendra, which was at a distance, but that did not matter if she got to train well.

In 1980, a national camp was organised to prepare athletes for the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi. Bubbling with excitement, Minara was prepared to leave for the camp, but did not receive information from the federation. “It was heartbreak and as the days passed, I realised there was nothing I could do.”

Far from broken, Minara returned to training and the Sports Council of the West Bengal government offered her a scholarship for a coaching course at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala. Minara jumped at the opportunity and after completion also underwent a course in international judging.

As luck would have it, she became a judge at the Asian Games after being denied a chance to take part as a gymnast. After the Asian Games, Minara got an offer from NIS to join the organisation’s Chandigarh arena as a gymnastics coach. Life was about to change.

New innings as coach

“The environment at the Chandigarh facility was good. At the time, the Joint Sporting Director was Nirmal Kaur (late mother of golfer Jeev Milkha Singh) and she was extremely supportive and helped in equipping the gymnastics department with necessary facilities,” said Minara.

Under her mentorship, gymnasts from the Chandigarh academy started winning medals at Nationals and School Nationals, a feat that won Minara the prestigious state award. The fearless and tireless coach got transferred to Kolkata and it was here that she met Pranati.

Minara Begum and Pranati Nayak first met soon after the coach's transfer from Chandigarh to Kolkata.
Minara Begum and Pranati Nayak first met soon after the coach’s transfer from Chandigarh to Kolkata.

Pranati’s first major event was the International Children’s Asiad in 2008. In 2010, she participated in the Junior Asiad after being deemed too young to compete in the Commonwealth Games that year.

In 2014, Pranati got selected for the Commonwealth Games along with Dipa Karmakar. Bisheshwar Nandi (Dipa’s coach) and Minara, as Pranati’s coach, should have made the trip to Glasgow but Minara was removed from the national camp and another woman coach was selected to go.

Minara had to wait till the 2014 Asian Games where it was finally Nandi and her as the two coaches to travel with the gymnastics team. The two coaches also travelled for the World Championships, but Minara was again in the cold for the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games despite two of the four gymnasts being her students.

Minara accompanied Pranati for the Senior Asian meet at Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where she won bronze. When Pranati was the lone gymnast from India to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Minara was overjoyed. The euphoria died down when she learned that Lakhan Sharma, 27, had been selected to accompany Pranati.

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“It is his lack of experience that is surprising. It takes years to gain the knowledge and experience to coach and nurture talent. Lakhan Sharma is 27 and Pranati is 26, so I am not sure how they will click as coach and student. After training Pranati for so many years I heard that she is not comfortable with me,” said Minara.

Life will go on

Pranati may not have insisted on her childhood coach travelling with her to Tokyo, but despite this Minara is ready to take on the next challenge.

“Given a chance, I will prove myself again. I am never tired of coaching and training new gymnasts. And coming to the point of being overlooked, I want to say, ‘I love my India’.”

Text courtesy: SportSavour