Pritam Siwach, a hockey champion, good samaritan

  • The former Indian women’s team star, a Dronacharya awardee this year, is a champion for guiding young girls out of poverty through hockey excellence.
Hockey Coach Pritam Siwach receives Dronacharya Award 2021 from President Ram Nath Kovind during the National Sports Awards ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi on Saturday.(ANI)
Hockey Coach Pritam Siwach receives Dronacharya Award 2021 from President Ram Nath Kovind during the National Sports Awards ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan, in New Delhi on Saturday.(ANI)
Published on Nov 13, 2021 11:36 PM IST
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ByAvishek Roy, New Delhi

When Indian women’s hockey team members Neha Goyal, Nisha Warsi and Sharmila were engaged in a pulsating contest against Great Britain in the bronze medal playoff at the Tokyo Olympics, their coach Pritam Rani Siwach was fighting a tumult of emotions.

Siwach had spotted the trio and trained them at her academy in Sonipat, Haryana. India agonisingly fell short against Great Britain, and Siwach recalled being awash with helplessness that comes from such defeats. Her eyes fell on the room packed with young girls of her academy who had watched the match together. They sat there in silence. It was at that moment that Siwach was struck by a realisation.

“We might have lost the bronze medal, but the performance of our team in Tokyo completely transformed these girls,” says Siwach. “You speak to them now, all of them want to play for India at the Olympics.”

Siwach, a former India captain and a pioneer of women’s hockey in India, has worked tirelessly for 18 years to transform lives through hockey. On Saturday, she was conferred with the Dronacharya Award, an acknowledgment that Siwach feels would motivate her and other women players to take up coaching as a profession.

Having taken up coaching in 2002, while she was still playing for the national team, Siwach’s journey was full of challenges. In all these years, she has received unstinting support from her husband, Kuldeep Siwach, also a former player.

Unlike many others, Siwach focused on working at the grassroots. She chose Sonepat for her training centre and focused on coaching young girls from rural and humble backgrounds. It proved to be a difficult proposition.

“I started with the thought that these girls from rural areas should not face the same difficulty I have gone through. At every step in my coaching career, I encountered problems. First was to go among the parents and convince them to send their kids to play hockey, then arrange for their equipment, diet, etc. Many talented kids would leave after sometime and I would feel so disappointed,” recalls Siwach.

Most girls came from such poor families where the fight was for two proper meals a day. Sports had no scope in their scheme of things. “It needed a lot of cajoling from my side and repeated assurances that I will take complete care of their expenses for training and diet. Only then would they agree to send the kids.”

Getting a proper ground was another problem and Siwach and her husband were forced to start training in a park in an industrial area. Over the years, as the girls started doing well at the national level and also got into the India team, a washroom and a small gymnasium were added near the ground. Many of the girls stay in nearby hostels.

“We have some of the country's top junior players who have played in national championships. But in terms of facilities there is nothing. We have been trying to get an astroturf for years. We have written to the authorities to provide us some assistance. Sometimes I feel so defeated with the situation.”

It is at this stable that Goyal, Warsi and Sharmila learnt their first hockey lessons. All three had a tough childhood. But Siwach and her academy provided them support. “They have grown up here since they were in class three or four. All three come from a poor background.”

Warsi had even quit hockey when her family faced a financial crunch. Siwach approached the family, and after much persuasion, succeeded in getting her back. “She comes from a nearby colony. Her father used to be a tailor and there was some financial issue when she stopped coming in 2013. She had already played in the national championships. They were hoping she would get a government job through hockey but that did not happen.”

Siwach promised the family to take care of her training and studies. “It was after many months that she started coming and made a great comeback. I told her whatever home problem you have, please tell me. She has not looked back and made her mark in the Indian team.”

Goyal’s mother was the only earning member of the family while Sharmila’s father was a small farmer. Hockey gave them purpose.

Winds of change

While the start was extremely difficult, the efforts of Siwach began to show results with girls making their mark on the national stage and getting government jobs. Their success changed the hearts of many parents. Several help them now by doing odd jobs at the academy.

Today, there are more than 200 girls in Siwach’s academy, and after the performance of the Indian team in the Olympics, more girls want to join. Her team recently won the Nehru Girls U17 tournament with the National Cadet Corps (NCC) coming forward to support.

“I brought many of these girls from villages to the city and provided them with whatever I could—be it shoes, kit or equipment. At every step I had to fight with the society because I am running a girls’ academy and I had to take them out for competitions.

“But the parents have seen that hockey can give them a better future. We have developed a bond. They help us at the academy, water the ground and clean everything, collect balls during training.”

As a player, Siwach had led India to silver in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, and made a comeback after childbirth to be part of India’s victorious team in 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

“As a player it is in your hands to prove yourself. A coach has to get the best out of her trainees and anything can go wrong. You may have prepared them the best way but the performance might not come. Coaching at grassroots is tougher.

It is important to teach them the fundamentals well, but how do you do that without astroturf, without proper diet, facilities? We are still working on it and hope more young girls come forward for training after the Tokyo Olympics.”

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