Meet the Indian women’s hockey team as it gears up to create Olympic history in 2020


Meet the Indian women’s hockey team as it gears up to create Olympic history in 2020

Away from the limelight and media glare, the team has been quietly undergoing a transformation

By Meenakshi Iyer  December 10th, 2019

It’s 10 AM on a Tuesday morning at Sports Authority of India’s elite women’s hostel in Bengaluru. A palpable energy can be felt in the air as young athletes file in and out of their dorm rooms. We catch a glimpse of the Indian women’s hockey team as they return from a rigorous two-hour gym session. They are then whisked away for a quick massage and some rest before they hit the field again. In between, the 18-member team will also wrap up a photo shoot for this feature and other media interviews. Dinner will be followed by an intense video analysis of past games where game experts and coaches will break down each move, turn, hit and save to strategise for the next game. Clearly, time is a luxury for the Indian Eves as they prepare for one of the biggest battles of their lives—the Tokyo Olympics.

But the journey till this point hasn’t been an easy one. 

Last month, at the ​FIH Olympic Qualifiers in Bhubaneswar, when India’s fate at the Olympics was still uncertain, the team was up against the USA, who they had beaten only once in the last 10 encounters. “At half time, we were 0-0. We had 30 minutes to decide who gets to play in the Olympics,” says Rani Rampal, the 24-year-old captain from Haryana. This match was a turning point for not only the team but for many individual players too. “For some of our senior members, losing this game would have meant the end of their careers. In fact, it could have been the end of my career too,” says Rampal, who, at 15, was one of the youngest players to represent India at the 2010 World Cup. 

But the team managed to turn the game around in the last few minutes. They struck back with lightning attacks, swift passes and used every muscle in their body to edge out USA 6-5 and take India to the Olympics.

Game Changer 

For decades, Indian women’s hockey was associated with passive defence; it also had the reputation of being one of the most unfit teams in the world. “When Wayne Lombard (the team’s scientific coach from South Africa) joined, he thought ‘Oh my God, where do I even begin’. Our team wasn’t as fit; and due to the extra conditioning we would often feel fatigued leaving us with very little energy for the actual game,” adds Rampal.

However, over the last couple of years, Lombard, along with coach Sjoerd Marijne, worked tirelessly on the athletes to turn them into forces to reckon with. General fitness training has now been replaced by regimented workouts tailored to each player’s strength on field; oily, spicy food is replaced by a strict low carb, high protein diet with only 2 cheat days in a year! Players are grouped in colour-coded boxes based on their body composition and blood test results. Their fitness and diet plans are tweaked to suit their body type, as well as energy requirements on the field. Take for instance Gurjit Kaur, master drag-flicker (probably one of the best in the world), who had a tough time moving out of the red box (it indicates higher than ideal body composition): “I used to start my day with green tea and eat my first solid meal at noon. I have worked very hard on my fitness and would never want to go back in the red box.”

Way forward

This renewed focus on fitness has also helped the Indian team realise its full potential, a mindset it will need in abundance as it prepares to compete with some of the best teams in the world. “In the last 36 years, this is only the second time the women’s hockey team has qualified for the Olympics. At Rio (2016), we lacked the experience and foresight to get us a win, but now we train every day with our eyes firmly set on bringing home a medal,” says Savita Punia, team’s vice-captain and goalkeeper, and one of the most experienced members of the team. She is also the recipient of the prestigious Arjuna Award, making her the third woman goalkeeper ever to receive it. Punia still remembers the time when her grandfather (who encouraged her to pursue hockey) learnt to read so he could follow all her many achievements in the newspapers. “The first time he saw a story written about me, he had tears in his eyes. That day I decided I would never back down,” says Punia.

For these 18 players, hockey was once a sport their families nudged them into in pursuit of a better life and a secure government job. But today, hockey is more than just a means of employment—it is a way of life, one that is fuelled by glory and pride.  

“I firmly believe that there is no substitute to hard work, not just in sports but also in life .” —Rani Rampal, captain.
“I am from Haryana and belong to a middle-class family; but they have been extremely open-minded and supportive of me and my career.” —Savita Punia, vice-captain.
"Drag flicking brings a unique angle to me as a player. Though it involves a lot of hard work, I enjoy doing it.” -Gurjit Kaur, defender.
“I’ll never forget our match against England in 2018. The stadium was filled with people and they were all cheering for us. It was the most amazing feeling.” —Deep Grace Ekka, defender.
 

 

Photographs: Adil Hasan

Art direction: Sanika Palsikar