Gymnast Rakesh Patra puts a ring around Paris

The 28-year-old Indian gymnast has resumed training after a shoulder surgery. He wants to defy age and prove his prowess in the 2024 Olympics.
By Subhayan Dutta

When a 25-year-old Rakesh Patra had narrowly missed the 2016 Olympics cut, after an impressive Glasgow World Championship campaign in 2015, the promising gymnast was widely expected to represent India at the Tokyo Games.

The rings specialist had finished 25th in the world rankings after his performance in Glasgow in 2015, with the top 24 going through to Rio 2016.

Patra remained among the world’s top gymnasts after Rio. A string of fourth-placed finishes at the FIG World Challenge Cup in Mersin, at the Melbourne World Cup and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast kept the Odisha gymnast in the limelight.

But a shoulder injury ruined Patra’s journey. In January 2019, Rakesh Patra damaged the labrum on his left shoulder and faced surgery.

“I tried to control it to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics first, but my shoulder was in such bad shape that I couldn’t even lift my hand,” Rakesh Patra told the Olympic Channel.

“It [shoulder] was totally dead and my last option was to get surgery done. I did not think about the Tokyo Olympics then,” added the gymnast, who lives in the temple town of Puri. He was operated upon in Mumbai in January this year.

Rakesh Patra’s last international competitions were the 2019 World Cup in Slovenia and Croatia in May end, following which he stuck to national competitions.

Overcoming obstacles

Rakesh Patra is no stranger to the struggles of life.

Hailing from a poor family that lived in a thatched hut, Rakesh Patra saw his house catching fire when he was a child. His family had virtually become refugees.

Patra was inspired by his uncle Suvendu Patra, a former international gymnast. He took to gymnastics when he was only 11.

“The first time my uncle took me with him to Jhadeswari club, I saw people doing back salto, front salto, back flip, front flip and many other things,” Rakesh Patra recalled.

“When I tried to do it, I fell. But, from then on, I wanted to learn it.”

The gymnast has come a long way since then. He started working for the Indian Navy in 2010 and started showing glimpses of his abilities at major international events.

After recovering from a shoulder injury, Rakesh Patra eyes 2024 Olympic Games

However, whether it was his recurring fourth-placed finishes at major events, being initially left out of the 2018 Commonwealth Games squad or the 2016 Olympics miss – Rakesh Patra’s career hasn’t been particularly smooth. Luck too deserted him.

“Dipa Karmakar also finished 26th (in the 2016 Olympics qualification), but two Koreans ahead of her were found doping. So, she moved into the top 24 (and qualified),” Rakesh Patra pointed out.

Defying age through hard work

With Rakesh Patra now completing his rehabilitation and the Tokyo Olympics getting postponed, the gymnast returned to training in hope of an outside chance to qualify for the Games through the World Championships.

But given the setbacks he has dealt with so far, the gymnast knows that aiming for the 2024 Olympics in Paris remains a more realistic target for him.

But age would be a deterrent. Rakesh Patra will be 32 when Paris comes and gymnastics is about youth and power. Patra believes he can defy age by sheer hard work and careful planning.

“I agree that the body slows down a bit. We are in top form between the age of 18 and 25. 

“When you are 30 years old, you will have to put in double the work as compared to a 25-year-old … age does not matter if you have a mindset,” Patra added.

Rakesh Patra has 1992 Olympic gold medalist Oksana Chusovitina and four-time Olympic medalist Iordan Iovtchev for motivation.

While Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina represented the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan, and Germany in her illustrious career, which has spanned more than a quarter of a century, Bulgaria’s Iordan Iovtchev has competed in six consecutive Olympic Games.

“Oksana Chusovitina is 45 and still wins medals at the world events,” Rakesh Patra pointed out.

“We also have Jordan Jovtchev who was still competing at 42 and even reached the Olympics finals in rings,” he added.