Girls breaking barriers on ice get boost from Olympic champion
On a mid-January morning, as the city of Leh is sleeping, a group of 25-odd girls are gliding on ice with ballet-like grace in sub-zero temperatures. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and leafless poplar trees, they receive intermittent instructions and shouts of encouragement. Their ages vary from as young as 15 to about 30. Sometimes they fall, sometimes fist-bump each other or show off a cool skating move. Their skates and sticks seem worn out but their enthusiasm is fresh. Meet the women’s ice hockey team of India.
“Most people in India don’t even know that the sport exists. My friends in college in Delhi University ask me what ice hockey is. Once I was invited as a speaker along with vice-captain of the Indian cricket team Rohit Sharma on a panel. He was very encouraging and asked me how we play, though for the audience it was like I didn’t exist,” says 21-year-old Diskit Angmo, who plays in the defence position.
Little known in the country, the girls, all from Ladakh, have been steadily gaining international fame. On the ice rink with them is Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medallist from Canada. Alongside her is Andrew Ference, another stalwart of Canadian ice hockey. Two international and one Indian team of documentary film-makers are following the story of the team that’s breaking barriers on ice.
Wickenheiser decided to support the team after seeing a YouTube video of the girls. “I’m focusing on building their skills and skating right now. Their individual skills are still weak, so you can’t work on team strategies right now,” she says.
As the excited girls click selfies with her after training, Wickenheiser announces that they will be donating equipment kits. In February, the girls may also get a chance to meet Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, on his visit to India. For the team, this is a dream opportunity considering the odds they have had to overcome to get to this stage.
Some girls like Shabina Kausar, 20, who plays in the right forward position, do not even own a playing kit. “I am playing with borrowed equipment. The kit is very expensive and I’m from a lower-middle class family. The only pair of skates I own I bought in 2011 for Rs 8,000,” she says.
Others like Tsewang Chorol, 19, had to fight parental pressure to follow their dream. “I would lie to my parents and go for practice and training. They wanted me to focus on my studies. Everyone says there is no scope for women in sports but this is my passion so I do whatever I can,” says Chorol.
The girls laugh recalling the hardships of the early days. Angmo describes how they had to make their own ice rink at Gupuks lake outside the city to be able to practise. “We designated weekly shifts for this. First, we had to drive down at 8pm, dig some of the ice to get the water from the lake. Through buckets, mugs and pipes we would spread the water across. Then we could come back at 3am to repeat the process. By 7am the rink would be ready for us to play,” she says.
Their first big break came in 2016 when the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) decided to take a team to the Challenge Cup of Asia. The men’s team had been competing internationally since 2009. The news was thrilling but practical hindrances, such as not having passports and money to afford the trip, threatened to end their run before they could even start. Help from the Ministry of External Affairs and a crowdfunding campaign made it possible. In that outing, they lost all the matches, though their goalkeeper, Noorjahan, picked up the best player award in that category.
“Losing was not disheartening but actually helped us grow. We gained experience and knowledge. There was a lot of support we got from other teams as well,” says Dorjay Dolma, 25, who was the second goalkeeper.
Last year they competed in the same tournament in Thailand. Once again, they ran a crowdfunding campaign and raised Rs 32 lakhs. This time they won two matches. Chorol points to a team photograph from the tournament on her television table, describing the euphoria. “We were all so emotional and cried so much. Even others became teary-eyed when our national anthem was being played. We felt that we had made our country proud,” she says excitedly.
Wickenheiser says that for the moment, the team is at the beginner level. “Internationally, they are at the bottom of the pool right now though they are not the worst. With consistent time on the ice and training they can beat the teams in their divisions and move further up,” she adds.
Like most sports (other than perhaps cricket) in India, state support for ice hockey has been minimal. Internationally, the game is played on artificial rinks which are much larger and smoother than the natural ice rinks the team is used to playing on. The only artificial rink in the country, in Dehradun, is lying defunct as the state government does not have the money to operate it.
This has also spurred the team to reflect on the future of the sport. Using the leftover money from the crowdfunding campaign, they formed the Ladakh Women Ice Hockey Foundation. This January they held coaching camps for younger girls. “The equipment we received from Hayley will be used by the foundation to train others. We hope we can inspire the next generation of girls to take up the sport,” says Kausar.
This is what four members of the team have to say about the sport that means so much more than a game to them.
I Want To Become A Coach One day: Tsewang Chorol
The youngest of seven siblings, Chorol came to Leh for the first time from her village in Ladakh for an ice hockey tournament. In 2011, when a Canadian national first set up a small camp to teach ice hockey in her village, people eagerly sent their kids to learn. Every year the Canadians returned but as the children grew up, the parents became less inclined. To keep her family happy, Chorol enrolled in a nursing programme in Srinagar, while coming with her sister to Leh during the practice months. She had often seen YouTube videos of Hayley Wickenheiser playing, and was excited to learn from her icon in person. After training, she returns to finish her college homework. “Ice hockey is my passion but there is not too much scope. I hope I can become a coach so I can help others play,” she says.
When I Am On Field, Nothing Else Matters: Diskit Angmo
In her first international ice hockey tournament in 2016, Angmo crashed into the rink wall and broke her leg. She was out of action for the next three months. But she did not let that keep her down. In the 2017 Asia
Challenge Cup, Angmo played her heart out and won the team’s most valuable player award. Currently an English
Literature student at Delhi University, she wants to move back to Leh after graduating and focus on the sport. Her brother captains the men’s ice hockey team and she often faced differential treatment from friends and family when it came to playing the same sport.
Her father was instrumental in her taking up the sport and since his passing away four years ago, her emotional connect to the game has increased. “When I’m on the field, nothing else matters. My only focus is to play well and win,” she says.
I Want To Become A Professional: Dorjay Dolma
Hailing from a poor family living in a remote village in Ladakh, Dolma never thought she would one day be part of the country’s ice hockey team. She started skating after class 12, during a year at a gap year school outside Leh. She remembers the multiple injuries she received every day when she first went on ice. She has persisted in the game by lying to her mother, who disapproves of it. When she had the chance to buy equipment from the crowdfunding campaign, she bought a kit not for herself but her sister. Though many in her village don’t know what the game is, her younger sister too has taken up the sport. “Right now, my priority is to improve and become a professional player. I don’t think I have reached that stage yet,” she says.
I Feel Alive When I Am Skating: Shabina Kausar
The only hijab-clad player on the rink, Kausar missed out playing ice hockey for the last three years because she had to prepare for her medical entrance examinations. But this year she was back in action, adjusting her helmet over her hijab and spectacles. A national-level figure and speed skating champion, Kausar has lost count of the medals and trophies she has won for her exploits on ice. Not owning a good pair of skates did not come in her way. She is conscious of the sacrifices her parents have made to allow her to play and is determined to become a doctor to fulfil their dream. Her own dream is different though. “Ice is my happy place. I feel alive when I’m skating. My dream is to compete and win in the Winter Olympics someday,” she says.