When Rani Rampal started playing hockey, all she had was her ‘zid’ and ‘junoon’. On the cusp of her second Olympics, she still swears by the fire that burns within. Firstpost profiles the Indian women’s hockey captain.
It couldn’t have been any more perfect; the scene, the context, the mad, explosive roar at the teeming Kalinga Stadium. Rani Rampal jogs inside the ‘D’, pounces on a soft pass, settles with the possession, and rips a thundering reverse hit that lands on top of the post, leaving US goalkeeper Kelsey Bing leaping in its wake. The fourth-quarter goal came with India trailing 0-4 in their Olympic qualifier against USA, and though the team lost this match 4-1, a 5-1 victory in the earlier leg put them 6-5 ahead on aggregate, paving their way to Tokyo Olympics. A page turned.
Eighteen months have passed since that sweat-soaked November night in Bhubaneswar, but the significance of that goal cannot be stated enough. To those not clued in, this is only the third instance of an Indian women’s hockey team playing the Olympics, 41 years after their Games debut in Moscow where the team finished fourth from six participants. In 2015, they qualified for the Rio Olympics to end a 36-year wait, and now, this bunch of resilient dreamers has made it to their second consecutive Olympics. If there’s a peculiar joy in being the first, perhaps there lies a greater joy in doing it twice.
The real import of Rani’s goal, however, extends far beyond the field of play. Away from the spotlight and glitz that follow success, far from trending hashtags and inane quotes, these girls have dreamt and fought to keep their dreams alive. Think of every possible tear-jerker trope, and each fits seamlessly with every member of the Indian squad. Patriarchy? Check. Catcalls? Check. Fund crunch? Check. Resolve? Check. Success? Check. Not surprisingly, Rani Rampal comes across as a natural embodiment of the team and many struggles of its members.
The story has been retold a million times – daughter of a cart-puller, battling resistance within and outside the family to play hockey, and eventually hockey being her escape to a better world. But Rani’s story cannot be contained in clear-cut boxes as these. To those who have been to her house – the one where she lived till 2017 – the ramshackle construction continues to be an enduring memory.
It is a tiny dot on Google map, a neat 200 kilometres from the national capital. Weave through the South Delhi traffic, zoom past the hardware stores bordering the capital, drive into the serene greens of Haryana that flank the Grand Trunk Road until dot becomes the destination, and one realises the distance between Delhi and Shahbad Markanda is lot more than what the maps suggest. A lifetime separates the presumably progressive city lights and the stifling patriarchy of these lands, and cold statistics, such as that of a sex ratio of 833 (as of 2011 census), mock in the face of India’s growth story. That Rani Rampal exists at all is a mini-miracle; that she plays an outdoor sport is beyond belief.
Her parents, Rampal and Rammurti, had never heard of hockey. “A lot of people told us that allowing a girl child to play hockey will bring a bad name to the family. Girls are not supposed to wear shorts and skirts and play hockey. To be honest, I bought that argument, but iski zid thi (she was adamant),” Rampal had told this correspondent after another Rani strike, this time against Japan, had ensured India’s entry to the Rio Olympics.
Six years hence, sitting in Bengaluru’s SAI hostel one Sunday morning, groggy and tired after the previous day’s punishment, Rani remembers the conversation she had with her father that changed her life.
“I distinctly remember sitting him down and telling him that I’ll eventually marry and ‘settle in life’, but now is the time to live my dream. Zid thi. Zid can sometimes lead you to miracles,” she says.
Rani’s zid began when, aged six, she found herself at the famed Shahbad Hockey Academy, the incubator of women hockey players for India that had already given over 70 players to the country. Coach Baldev Singh, a famously tough taskmaster, sent her home thinking she was too weak. Rani persisted, and eventually, Singh gave in. Her zid had won a significant battle. Seven years later, she made it to the senior national camp, and a year later, in 2008, aged 13-and-a-half, she made her India debut.
The Indian dugout is a wreck. Goals from Amanda Magadan (5th, 28th minutes), skipper Kathleen Sharkey (14th), and Alyssa Parker (20th) have put the USA on the verge of a stunning comeback. The scores are level on aggregate. Walking towards coach Sjoerd Marijne, Rani’s sheepish glance meets goalkeeper Savita’s stunned look, and at that instant, the two seniormost members of the team know what both of them wanted to say.
“We have seen it in the past too, and we knew that it would happen to us as well. Had we lost, our careers might well have ended that night. Savita knew it, and I knew it. The juniors still had a lot of time in their careers, but for us, the clock was ticking,” recalls Rani.
On the morning of the match, Rani’s roommate Lalremsiami had told the skipper that she had a feeling that Rani will hit the winning goal. 0-4 down and staring at a heartbreak, all that belief and optimism seemed preposterously misplaced.
“I knew we didn’t deserve to go out that way. Then Sjoerd got the team together and told us to forget the first half and take the match from a 0-0 scoreline. He said whichever team wants it more, will win.”
In the 30 minutes that followed, not many wanted it more than Rani. It was only poetic that the winning goal materialised from a Lalremsiami pass. “I still remember that moment. I feel lucky to have played a small part in that strike. There is so much to learn from Rani, as a player, captain, and person, and I was just so happy for her. Being her roomie, I was privy to the pressure she was under,” said Lalremsiami.
For Rani, who had a forgettable game until then, it was a moment of redemption. The US defence had kept her quiet, and the young forwards were just not able to break through. It was shaping up into a meltdown for the ages before Navjot stole the ball, Lalremsiami passed and Rani struck.
“It happened in a blur. We can sit back and analyse all we want, but at that moment, I just hit with all the power I had without thinking much. That goal gave me a lot of satisfaction. I still watch it on loop whenever I am sad or feeling low,” she says.
Rani had witnessed careers ending with each disqualification. Back in 2008, powered by her zid to rid herself and her family from crippling poverty, she made her India debut at the Olympics qualifiers in Kazan, Russia.
The qualifiers were played a month after the men’s team had failed to make it to an Olympics for the first time in 88 years, marking a sordid chapter in Indian hockey and perhaps funneling unwarranted expectations towards the women’s side. The team featured stalwarts such as Mamta Kharab and Pritam Rani Siwach – the latter was called back from retirement to bolster experience — but they failed to make it to the Beijing Games. Indian hockey had reached its nadir. Heads rolled in the administration, careers ended on the field.
“Back then, I didn’t know what an Olympics meant. Hockey was a medium to get me out of poverty and maybe land a government job later. For me, it was just another match,” recalls Rani, referring to the 4-0 heartbreak to USA that knocked them out of the qualifications race. “I saw a number of seniors weeping and wailing. Honestly, I couldn’t fathom what the fuss was about. I thought it is just another loss.”
It wasn’t. Pritam went back to her academy in Haryana to churn out international players. She never played for India again. Suman Bala and Mamta Kharab – who, along with Pritam formed the golden trinity that was instrumental in the seminal 2002 Commonwealth Games win – also phased out in a haste. The baton was passed to Rani, and she was ready.
Colorful Career Timeline Infographic by Shantanu Srivastava
The team didn’t have much success in the years leading to the 2012 Olympics qualifiers – a silver at the 2009 Asia Cup and a bronze at the 2010 Asian Champions Trophy being the only worthwhile achievements – but Rani’s career began to take wings.
A year after the Kazan catastrophe, the Indian women’s hockey team returned to the Russian city for Champions Challenge II, a qualifier event for Champions Trophy, and riding on Rani’s four goals in the final, thumped Belgium 6-3. Rani, who scored eight times in the tournament, was also the event’s top scorer.
Success at the senior World Cup followed next year, and she also made it to the All-Star team of the Asian Hockey Federation based on her performance at the 2010 Asian Games at Guangzhou. By the time the 2012 Olympics qualifiers arrived, the teenaged prodigy had cemented her spot in the team.
“We were playing the qualifiers for London Olympics and the final was against South Africa in Delhi. It was a winner-takes-all match, but we were confident of beating them on our home ground,” she recalled.
There would be no fairytale though. India lost the tie 3-1 and missed the bus for the second successive Olympics. This time, Rani could understand the gravity of the result.
“It was a painful loss. We were staying in The Lalit (a five-star hotel in central Delhi), I sat in the corridor outside my room, and just broke down. I wept till 3 am. I thought my career was over. I had seen my seniors weep like that in 2008, and I remember a lot of careers ended that year.
“As I said, in 2008, I didn’t know the importance of the Olympics or the magnitude of that loss, but in 2012, I could feel it in my bones. Though I was very young and not exactly at the end of my career, I thought there’s no point in continuing if we can’t even qualify for the Olympics.”
Rani went home and decided she was done with hockey. She announced her decision to her parents, but Rampal, who had once fiercely dissuaded Rani from playing, coaxed her to continue.
“My dad really pushed me. I’d say he saved my career, otherwise, I had made up my mind. He said losses are part and parcel of life and you must learn from them. I kept myself off hockey for a couple of months, but dad kept pushing. Slowly, I picked myself up and started preparing for 2013 Junior World Cup.”
We’re in 2015. The by-lanes are too narrow to let a mid-size car, the dung-infested, cobbled, potholed streets lead to a semi-constructed house at the entrance of which is tied an emaciated pony. Rampal, Rani’s father, is a tired, impoverished man with drooping shoulders, sunken eyes, and a skeletal frame. One look at him is enough to tell that the man has spent a lifetime lifting bricks at construction sites.
The so-called living room is an unplastered mess with overbearing mustiness, a worn-out bedsheet serves as a curtain to give the family some privacy, the only shelf in the room is crammed with Rani’s trophies, there are a grand total of three plastic chairs as far as furniture goes, and on the far end of the room, cross-legged on a rickety single-bed, Rani Rampal, dressed in her India jersey, is fiddling with her iPhone. It was a pleasant misfit.
She looked fairly embarrassed; her gaze mostly fixed on the half-cemented flooring as she talked patiently on India’s qualification to Rio Games. It is hard to forget — the quiet confidence in her monosyllabic answers, the promise of a better life taking shape in that non-descript house of a non-descript hamlet, the silent pride in where she comes from, and the unmistakable clarity of where she wanted to be.
Six years back, Rani convinced her father to quit. That was the first step towards repaying the back-breaking struggle Rampal had been undertaking for years.
“I was not satisfied then, I am not satisfied now,” she says. “I still have goosebumps thinking of those days. I can never forget the time I had seen, the hell my parents have been through. The least I can do is give them a comfortable retirement. If you are clear about your goals in life, and if you have zid and junoon (passion) to chase your dreams, you’ll reach where you want to be.”
“You know, our roof would leak in rains. The world would wait for the monsoons, but we would dread it. The entire family would huddle in a corner, praying for the rain to stop. Sometimes, our house would be flooded. I remembered cursing my destiny, weeping, praying, asking God why was I born in such poverty. Then, one day I decided to fight. I promised my mother that the first thing I will do, whenever I have the means for it, is to build a house.”
Rani kept her word, of course. In 2017, they moved to a new house. Finally, Rampal and Rammurti have a place that doesn’t reek of slush and hay. After years of deprivation, they can put their feet up and fool around with their grandchildren (Rani’s two elder brothers are married with kids), or simply, watch their daughter in action on television.
“They don’t understand the sport much, but whenever I go home, they tell me how happy they are to see me on TV. It is hard to believe they were once so against me playing hockey. A lot of my neighbours and relatives, who taunted my parents for letting me play, now put their girls in hockey academies. I don’t hold any grudges; in fact, I am happy to see that people have changed with time,” she says.
A few months back, in the short break that the team got between the Argentina tour and national camp, Rani was greeted by a stranger in her living room. The gentleman wanted to get his daughter into hockey and sought Rani’s advice. A quizzical Rani looked at her dad, who told her that the man in her house was the one on whose construction site Rampal would lift 1000 bricks a day with a daily wage of Rs 80.
“I just broke down. I don’t know what happened to me, I just wept and wept. All those years of my father’s struggle just flashed before me,” she recalled.
Here’s another moment of realisation. A few years back, Rani took her parents to a restaurant in Ambala. That was the first time her parents were to have a meal outside their house.
“Sitting with them in that restaurant, I realised my parents had never been to a restaurant in their life. It really hit me. I noticed they were really uncomfortable with the cutlery, so I put my fork and knife aside and started eating with my fingers, home-style. That broke an unsaid barrier and they followed suit. You can’t forget such moments.”
Another unforgettable moment in Rani’s growth was her first award – an alarm clock she won in Class 6 at a handwriting competition held in her school. It wasn’t an ordinary prize. Rani had only recently joined Shahbad Hockey Academy, and coach Baldev Singh wanted the trainees to report at 5 am every day. Rani’s family didn’t have an alarm clock, hell, they didn’t have any clock, watch, or timepiece. Her mother would wake up in the wee hours, do some star gazing to figure out the time and get Rani ready for her morning training. On days when her calculations would go astray, Rani would either land up at the academy too early, or slightly late.
Coach Baldev was unsparing. From corporal punishment to 100 front rolls on cold and wet turf, he would take latecomers to task in myriad ways, presumably to drill the importance of discipline.
On her first late arrival — Rani claims to have landed at the academy at 5:02 am instead of 5 am – Baldev ordered Rani a hundred front rolls, and a penalty of Rs 200. Later, when he came to know of her family’s financial condition, he waived off the fine and vowed to change her destiny.
“He said, ‘Either I’ll make you a player, or you’ll quit hockey,’” recalls Rani. “Then, I came to know about this competition at school, the winner of which would get an alarm clock. I worked on my Hindi handwriting and won that clock. I can’t tell you what that meant to a little girl whose mother would be up all night just to make sure her kid is not late for practice.”
“I do realise I have come very far, but I never forget where I come from. That always motivates me to give that extra bit in training and in matches.”
The Indian women’s hockey team, in fact, is a microcosm of similar struggles. From Jharkhand and Odisha to the Haryanvi hinterlands, the girls have overcome every conceivable barrier to reach Tokyo. And it’s a dream they don’t want to give up on anytime soon.
“Every girl here has a story of grit. Every girl is a winner in her own way. It is odd to say, but we bond over our collective misery and desire to change our lives. I tell these girls not to be embarrassed by their background. It is not our fault that we were born into poor families, but we can certainly change our lives.
“We speak different languages. Many of us don’t understand a word of English, but the language of sport is universal. We are not overawed by the opposition, glitter, venue, food, anything anymore,” says Rani.
Savita concurs. “There’s a lot of sisterhood in the camp. Each player has more or less the same backstory. What it also tells us is that girls are special, they are far too resilient and driven to make things better. A lot of girls are playing on borrowed time; they know once their careers end, they’ll be married off the next day. Our sufferings have only brought us closer. We were not very confident or fit, to begin with, but a lot has changed now.”
This change has taken a while coming. Coach Sjoerd remembers being struck by the team’s lack of confidence when he took charge four years back.
“It was strange. They were happy having played an Olympics; there was not much belief or ambition. I realised my predecessors had done a fantastic job in taking the Indian women’s hockey team to their first Olympics in 36 years, and it was my job to take the next step,” says the coach.
Sjoerd began the makeover by telling girls that proficiency in English and ease with cutlery is not what they should worry about. He created a leadership group, comprising Rani, Savita, and Deep Grace Ekka, to discuss his philosophy and disseminate it cogently within the ranks. The idea of making a senior player room with a junior also came about, “so that the culture flows consciously and subconsciously.”
The arrival of Wayne Lombard as Lead Scientific Advisor to the women’s team around the same time changed things dramatically. “I’d say Wayne is best in the world in his field. He brought the concept of personalised training and recovery. He put a lot of thought into every player’s schedule and diet. Until a few years back, we were beaten on the field because of fitness, but now we are as good as the Europeans,” says Rani.
“Look, Indian players are naturally gifted with stickwork, but you’ll be able to show your dribbling and dodging skills only when you reach the ball. Given the fast and physical nature of hockey, not to forget the dynamic four-quarter format, fitness cannot be understated. The girls hated me because I put them through a lot, but they understand the importance of what they are doing,” says Sjoerd.
At the Tokyo Olympics, World No 10 India are pooled with defending Olympic champions Great Britain, 2016 finalists and World No 1 Netherlands, World No 3 Germany, World No 9 Ireland, and World No 16 South Africa. Tough group notwithstanding, Sjoerd expects the team to make it to the quarter-finals, “beyond which, it is anybody’s game.”
For Rani, the journey from Shahbad’s leaking roof to being the emotional shelter for the team has been a long, arduous one. A 13-year international career that has seen her scale sporting summit has been built on countless hungry hours and the fire that just refuses to die.
“When I started, I had nothing. Bus junoon or zid thi. That can take you places.”