Rani Rampal recounts rise to stardom after Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna
For Rani Rampal, the first woman hockey player to get the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India’s highest sports honour, it has been a remarkable journey.
From living in a shanty to gifting her parents a double-storey house; from having to go by the position of stars to wake up for early morning training to having a high-end Apple watch and electronic gadgets; from being expelled from her first junior national camp for poor fitness to becoming India team captain, it has been a rollercoaster ride for the daughter of a cart-puller from Shahbad, Haryana.
Rani’s life revolves around hockey and in a 12-year India career she has emerged the face of Indian women’s hockey, which has qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.
“The moment I came to know I have been recommended for the Khel Ratna, I called my father. I got emotional and my voice choked and he was confused whether something bad has happened to me. He asked me, if I am going to get the country’s highest sports honour why was I crying,” says Rani, 25.
“It (Khel Ratna) was something I desperately wanted and that’s why I applied. But when the announcement was made, I couldn’t believe. It’s a dream come true, and that’s why I got carried away and started crying while talking to my father. He has seen the worst in life and really worked hard to make ends meet for our family.”
Only male hockey stars Dhanraj Pillay and Sardar Singh have received Khel Ratna. Rani is among the five chosen this year - Rohit Sharma (cricket), Vinesh Phogat (wrestling), Mariyappan Thangavelu (para athletics) and Manika Batra (table tennis) are the others.
“My hockey journey is nothing less than a fairytale. When I was thrown out of the junior camp (2007), the coach told me in front of all the campers that I can’t ever play for India,” recalls Rani, now a veteran of 241 internationals and 134 goals.
“At that time we had limited resources, so my diet was very simple…I was under-nourished. I was just 36 kg. But I took my unceremonious exit from the camp as a blessing in disguise. After that I worked really hard and with the support of our coach at Shahbad centre, Baldev sir, never looked back. I was even named in Asia XI and World XI.”
Rani led India to silver in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games and her last-minute goal against USA in the Olympic qualifiers held in Bhubaneswar last year helped the team qualify. She was also in the Rio Olympics team.
“With the Khel Ratna, I have got all the sporting awards - Arjuna and Haryana’s Bhim award. One thing still missing is an Olympic medal. The way the women team is shaping up, a podium finish in Tokyo is within our reach,” says Rani, who is currently with the national camp at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru.
Six members of the Indian men’s hockey team, also based in Bengaluru, tested positive for Covid-19. “There is no fear among the women campers and everyone is taking required precautions and maintaining social distancing while working out. The only difference compared to earlier camps is we are training in two groups of 12 players each. Everyone continued with their fitness routine even while we were at home. We’re playing hockey after almost four-and-half months, so it will take some time to catch up with our old regimen.”