On August 15, Independence Day, at 2 pm Rio time, every Indian journalist had the same question on their minds and lips: Where is a medal going to come from? Abhinav Bindra, still the only Indian to win gold in an individual event, fell, literally, a fraction short; Sania Mirza,On August 15, Independence Day, at 2 pm Rio time, every Indian journalist had the same question on their minds and lips: Where is a medal going to come from? Abhinav Bindra, still the only Indian to win gold in an individual event, fell, literally, a fraction short; Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna won the first set against Venus Williams and Rajeev Ram in the mixed doubles semifinal only to lose, and then drop the bronze medal playoff to a handy Czech team; the shooters and, as usual, the archers flattered to deceive.Rio Olympics 2016: How Indian athletes marked their presence despite a broken system Why we are a two-medal nation Three young girls, all between the ages of 21 and 23, salvaged India’s 2016 Olympic campaign. Each is partial to a scoop (or two, or three) of ice cream. And after their Olympic displays of grit, courage under pressure and, above all, explosive power, P.V. Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar deserve to eat as much ice cream as they want. For a few days, at any rate, before they resume the spartan regimen necessary to succeed as world class athletes. Karmakar turned 23 at the Olympics. India Today was there with cake but still in the throes of competition, she allowed herself only a microscopic piece. It’s a small example of the sacrifice required. Denying yourself cake is an apt image, a metaphor for the eschewing of temporary comforts to achieve glory, both personal and national.Olympic medals have become a marker for a certain kind of Indian; a marker of global success, of prestige. It’s a shortsighted and crude attitude. Athletes are essentially ignored, left to fend for themselves until an opportunity presents itself for politicians, celebrities and the media to bask in reflected glory. If only bandwagon jumping were an Olympic sport. The onus is still on individuals to succeed despite the system, rather than the system providing adequate structural support.advertisementSindhu, the rangy badminton player who thrilled the country with her athletic jumping smashes and her vigorous, attacking style, has had a relatively conventional rise to sporting superstardom. Her story is one athletes from other, more successful Olympic countries will recognise. She has athletic genes-her parents, P.V. Ramana and P. Vijaya, are both former volleyball players-and she began training at an early age, at an academy with first-rate facilities and expert coaching. Her coach, Pullela Gopichand, is himself a winner at the highest levels of the game, and is widely acknowledged as a master coach. In his hands, Indian badminton is clearly in rude health. On the other hand, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar are pioneers, the former the first Indian woman to win a wrestling medal and the latter the first Indian woman gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.While there are other prominent woman athletes from India as well-such as Vinesh Phogat, who was also fancied to bring home a wrestling medal-Karmakar is an outlier. And not just in India. She is one of a small handful of female vaulters in the entire world with the ability and sheer guts to attempt and land the so-called Produnova. This vault-named after Russian gymnast Yelena Produnova, the first person to successfully land it, in 1999-is a move of such difficulty and performed at such speed that severe injury is likelier than success, even for accomplished gymnasts. Nicknamed the ‘death vault’, the Produnova involves a hand spring off the vault, and a double front-somersault before the feet touch the mat. Only five gymnasts have ever managed to land this vault-and Karmakar is one of them.Sakshi Malik. Photo: Getty ImagesKarmakar’s audacious leap brought her to within a whisker of a medal, and has forever inscribed her name onto the pages of Olympic history. Still, Karmakar refused to be as wowed. “Medal, medal hota hai,” she told me that evening at the Olympic Village, “aur fourth, fourth. Hum jab room wapas gaye aur dekha ki 0.15 [points] ka farak hai, sir aur main khoob roye. Medal ke bahut paas thi main (A medal is a medal, and fourth place is fourth place. When we returned to our rooms and saw that there was only a difference of 0.15 [between third and fourth place], both my coach and I cried. I was very close to winning a medal).” Even now, her eyes filled with tears. “Tokyo mein main medal zaroor laoongi (At the Tokyo Olympics [in 2020], I will definitely win a medal). It is a promise.” If she stays healthy, there’s no reason to disbelieve her. More extraordinary yet would be if her exploits in Rio were to act as a catalyst for other Indian gymnasts to join her in Tokyo.For all of Karmakar’s bounce, the pep she put in our step, India’s medal tally remained empty until Sakshi Malik took to the mat on August 18. Having lost to a finalist, a contender for gold or silver, Malik had a second chance through wrestling’s repechage rule. It was an opportunity she would not squander, overcoming a 5-0 deficit with seconds left on the clock. The pressure was on after the highly touted Phogat was injured during her bout. “Jab Vinesh ko lag gaya,” Malik says, “mujhe bahut bura laga. Woh medal zaroor jeetti. Aur mere pe bahut pressure aa gaya tha. Par maine haar nahin maani. Main ladti rahi aur ant ke 10 seconds mein maine fight poora badal diya. Iss 10 seconds meri life ka sabse keemti dus seconds hai (When Vinesh got injured, I felt very bad for her-she was sure to win a medal. There was a lot of pressure on me, but I didn’t give up. I kept fighting, and in the last 10 seconds, the bout changed completely. Those 10 seconds were the most valuable 10 seconds of my life).”advertisementIt was the culmination, as Olympic medals are for so many athletes, of a childhood dream. Malik took to wrestling because she wanted an opportunity to travel the world. Sport at the highest level, means “sarkar mujhe plane mein chadhne ke liye help karegi, main desh videsh ja paoongi (The government would help me get on an airplane, and I would be able to travel the world).” Reporters from Mexico and the worldwide Olympic Broadcasting Service were waiting to interview her. It was confirmation, if any were needed, that Rio was a long way from Rohtak.Malik was born in 1992, a few weeks after the Barcelona Olympics. “Lakshmi finally came to our poor home that day,” says Sudha, 48, her mother. While Sudha was still in the maternity ward, she says, she received the appointment letter for her first job as an Anganwadi worker. Sukhbir Malik, 52, Sakshi’s father, was a bus conductor, finding it hard to support his growing family with his meagre earnings. Occasionally, those earnings were supplemented by produce from the family’s landholding in Mokhra, their home village in Rohtak district. Badlu Ram, Malik’s paternal grandfather, was something of a legend in Mokhra. In fact, his fame, as ‘Badlu Pehalwan’, spread across Haryana and through parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Among Malik’s earliest memories, she says, are of the awe and respect her grandfather was greeted with when they were out and about in Mokhra.It left so much of an impression that 12-year-old Malik would nag her mother to take her to wrestling classes. She went to the Chotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak where she was taken under the wing of wrestling coach Ishwar Dahiya. Malik would rise before dawn to make her 5.30 am training session, while Sudha would make sure her daughter had a glass of freshly pressed almond milk waiting for her at the end of practice.advertisementBrutally early training sessions are a leitmotif in the stories of all three athletes. Sindhu would start her day at 4.30 am. Her father, a tall, broad-shouldered former national volleyball player, used to drive her 40 kilometres from their home in Secunderabad to Gopichand’s academy-which Sindhu joined when she was 11-every morning, and back home again, until she began to stay at the academy hostel. Hyderabad was a hotbed of competitive players, with Saina Nehwal the standout star. But even in that company, it was clear to Gopichand that Sindhu was a champion in the making. In 2010, when Sindhu was just 15, Gopichand told india today that she was one to watch. “A lithe and lanky person,” he said, “is sure to go places in badminton.” Defeat to the world number one, Carolina Marin, in a tense, draining final, appears only to have whetted Sindhu’s appetite. “I want gold next time,” she said after the match. Gopichand, who knows better than most how difficult winning can be, and how much luck you need along the way, is more circumspect. But he is certain about Sindhu’s potential. “The world,” he asserts, “still hasn’t seen the best of Sindhu. When she becomes fully what I see glimpses of in her right now, she will be head and shoulders above the rest.”At the Olympics, Sindhu had a steeliness about her game, an unflappability that was unusual. She has always been pegged as a talented, dangerous but brittle player, as likely to beat herself as to be beaten by an opponent. Where Nehwal is a product of perspiration, a manufactured player, if you like, Sindhu was always a natural. But in the ruthless world of competitive professional sport, ‘natural’ alone doesn’t cut it. Sindhu had a tendency, sports psychologist Vaibhav Agashe says, “to get negative, to overthink things.” She became cautious when the heat was on, when matches became close, and handed the initiative to her opponent, losing matches from winning positions. There was little evidence of this trait in Rio as she dispatched the world number 2, Wang Yihan, conqueror of Nehwal four years ago in London and a badminton superstar in her own right, in the quarterfinals. She then dismantled Nozomi Okuhara, higher ranked than Sindhu and the winner of the All England Open, arguably badminton’s most prestigious title. “Once she beat Nozomi,” Gopichand said, “I could breathe easy. I had failed to handle the pressure in Sydney  and lost my medal and I did not want to come fourth again.”That Sindhu could cope with the pressure and the weight of expectation-most of India came to a halt during her final with Marin-perhaps had something to do with Gopichand confiscating her phone. Her eventual loss had nothing to do with her old Achilles heel-mental frailty. She may need to improve her defence, as experts and coaches have observed (maybe even the “bahut acchha coach” that Telangana’s deputy CM has promised Sindhu), and her close-to-the-net game, but she seems to have acquired a winning mentality, perhaps the most important ingredient. In Sao Paulo, on her way back to India, Gopichand finally let her have her phone back and within seconds Sindhu was on Whatsapp. Given the rewards that have already been laid at her feet, the certain celebrity that awaits, Gopichand might soon long for the days when a smartphone was the only distraction. #Sindhustan was the india today hashtag and it is that delirium, the hysteria of a country starved of Olympic medals and craving international respect, that P.V. Sindhu will have to block out. She still has a lot to prove on the circuit, still has to win the elite tournaments that Nehwal has, to become the best player in the world.Dipa Karmakar. Photo: APCelebrity also awaits Dipa Karmakar. Unlike Sindhu and Malik, Karmakar didn’t win a medal. But the audacity of the Produnova-a vault, her mother rather cheekily said, that even Simone Biles, the American phenomenon, won’t risk-stunned the country. Karmakar is the second child and second daughter, much to some family elders’ distress, of Dulal, a weightlifting coach with the Sports Authority of India, and Gauri. Her parents took her to a gymnastics coach when she was five and took the conscious decision to enrol her in a Bengali medium school because, they believed, there would be less academic pressure. It’s the opposite direction to the one most Indian parents might take, though Karmakar is still studying, sitting for a political science exam directly after her return from Rio. Her story is the kind of picturesque rise that happens, as they say, only in India. Karmakar first learned some of the skills that enabled her to perform a Produnova on the biggest stage of them all-on a vault fashioned out of old scooter parts.But even at a young age, her coach and parents knew she would win medals. At five, she would stay behind after lessons and practise for up to three hours. At seven, she won her first gold on the balance beam. Part of her prize was a goodie-bag full of kit that was too big for her. “Dipa wouldn’t let anyone else carry that bag,” her mother remembers, “she wouldn’t ever part with anything she won as a prize. She was so proud.” Soma Nandi, Karmakar’s first coach, said, “Dipa would never rest until she had got a move perfect. It was such a rare quality in a child that she stood out from the very beginning.” She took the Indian gymnastics scene by storm, winning medals, mostly golds, at every meet. She competed in the 2010 Commonwealth Games as a teen, finishing seventh, promising her father she would bring home a medal the next time. Four years later, at the games in Glasgow, she won a bronze in the vault. By then, she had been practising the Produnova for two years.As with so much else in her still-young career, Karmakar learned to perform the Produnova despite the naysayers, despite conditions entirely unfavourable to practising such a risky vault. From the very beginning, Karmakar’s family says, she has had her doubters. A coach and doctor told them she would never be a competitive gymnast because she had flat feet. Foreign coaches doubted an Indian gymnast’s ability to pull off a Produnova, and her coach Vishweshwar Nandi (Soma’s husband) says, “they thought she would end up mangled.” And you could understand why. “Tripura,” Soma says, “had no infrastructure to practise the Produnova, no foam pits. On mattresses and hard surfaces, the limbs are under tremendous pressure and can only take four or five landings; on a foam pit you can try 50.”Even three months before Rio, having qualified for the Olympics in March, it took the intervention of Sarbananda Sonowal, the chief minister of Assam, to ensure Karmakar had adequate facilities to practise. The result was six- to eight-hour practice sessions and 1,000 Produnovas in just 90 days. Having cut out all ice creams and sweets in the run-up to Rio, Karmakar, having become the first Indian to qualify for a gymnastics final, asked her coach if she could celebrate with a strawberry sundae. “He looked at her,” Soma laughed, “and promised that if she could wait till after the final, he would lock her up in one of the ice cream fridges at the Village.”More seriously, Soma points out, that while Karmakar has “inspired every young girl in Tripura, these are children whose families cannot feed them an egg or a glass of milk.” The success of Karmakar, and the medal-winning exploits of Malik and Sindhu, cannot mask the intrinsic problems India faces as an Olympic nation. But that’s a discussion we’ll be having again in four years. For now, let’s take pleasure in these extraordinary female athletes having their lucrative moment in the sun.