Meet the first Indian women’s hockey Olympic qualifiers ever

  • Aasheesh Sharma
  • Updated: Dec 05, 2015 21:42 IST
(Photo by Saumya Khandelwal)

Chhattis saal! Chhattis saal ke baad India Olympics mein khel raha hai. Ab tum accha khelo ya bura, lekin yeh record tumse koi nahin chheen sakta. Ki yeh hain woh ladkiyan jinhone chhattis saal ke baad Olympics ke liye qualify kiya hai.

Although he is Australian, if chief coach Neil Hawgood were to pep up the Indian women’s national team for the Rio Olympics in 2016, he might just fall back on the magical ’70-minute’ dialogue mouthed by Shah Rukh Khan in the 2007 blockbuster Chak De! India.

Whether they come from the hockey hub of Shahbad Markanda in dusty Haryana, or the hills of football-obsessed Manipur, or rural Andhra Pradesh, the bunch of women players participating in a pre-Olympic Test series in Argentina these days, are almost as disparate in background, language and temperament as the girls in Chak De!... What unites them is a steely resolve: showing the world what Indian hockey women players are made of.

And the pride is palpable. Although Indian women players did participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, they did so by invitation. “This makes us the first ever women’s team to qualify for the Olympics,” says Ritu Rani, the skipper, with a glint in her eyes. “Even our seniors tried to make the cut, but fell at the final hurdle, losing to South Africa in 2012. But this team is special,” says the 24-year-old, already a seasoned campaigner with over 10 years of experience.

What keeps Rani’s team a step ahead of its predecessors, then? It could be the fire in their bellies. Quiz Rajani Etimarpu, the lanky goalkeeper, about what her role in Rio will be and she vows she won’t let anything get past her. The daughter of a carpenter father and homemaker mom from Nerbailu Village in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district, she might not have had the opportunities that her teammate Savita Poonia of Haryana, the senior goalkeeper, might have enjoyed. But Etimarpu grabbed every chance she got. What did her parents have to say about the flight to Rio de Janeiro? “Rio, they wouldn’t be able to locate it on the map! They are not very educated. But they are very happy!” she beams. “The last time they were this proud was when I made it to the national camp in 2008.”

Etimarpu let out a whoop of joy and was off the bench in a flash to hug her senior teammate when Poonia helped India beat Italy in a sudden death shootout. “Having played together for years, we are best friends.”

Taking joy in each other’s achievements appears to be the greatest strength of the younger players. It helps that they have seniors such as vice captain Deepika Thakur to look up to. Thakur’s warm disposition has been complementing her strong work ethic for close to a decade. “Social media has become a bigger distraction since the time I began. But ultimately, it is the performance which will get you more likes on Facebook. Sacrificing your personal life – such as not attending my sister’s wedding – is paying off now,” she says.

In 2014, the team won a bronze at the Incheon Asian Games, beating higher placed Japan 2-1 in the third-place decider. The victory paved the way on the road to Rio. The team finally clinched its Olympic berth through a fifth-place finish at the Hockey World League semi-final in Antwerp in 2015.

Indian hockey contingents have never been short on skill. But this bunch of girls has the added edge of fitness. Most team members can complete their 30-metre sprints in 5 seconds. This will help them take on Korea, China, Argentina, Great Britain, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and USA, among others.

The foes are formidable. But make no mistake, when the going gets tough, our Chak De girls are ready to stick it out.


Photos: Saumya Khandelwal

Follow on Twitter @Aasheesh74

From HT Brunch, December 6

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