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Dreams are funny things, aren’t they?

Rani Rampal
OFFICIAL
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187   //    23 Jun 2018, 17:36 IST

Rani Rampal
Rani Rampal

You had to be a brave little girl if you wanted to play hockey in Shahabad, the town where I grew up.

The region, itself, is a hub for young and budding hockey players. Many from the village have made it to the national team.

Everyone loved hockey. 

But, it was still a "man's" game.

You know what my neighbours used to say while smirking at me? What they used to tell my parents?

"Don't send your girl to play hockey. It is not for young girls."

"A girl? On the hockey field? Are you mad?"

I still don't understand why this discrimination was there. Sports should be practised without discrimination of any kind, that is the only way the youth can be taught to contribute to building a peaceful and better world.

My parents too were apprehensive about me playing hockey back then. My father used to tell me, "Concentrate on studies, you don't need to play hockey." I was six at that time.

Perhaps, they were afraid something might happen to their little girl.

But the little girl knew only one thing – hockey.

You had to be a brave little girl if you wanted to play hockey in Shahabad.

My father was a cart-puller. He had to look after a family of six. We lived in a small house which had only two rooms. Whenever it rained, water used to enter our house. Naturally, it was very difficult at times.

Believe me, I had known poverty.

I often feared, will my parents be able to afford to let me play hockey for a living? Thankfully, my coach and my senior players guided me and supported me through that time.

Rani dribbles through
In action

I started playing under Baldev Singh, who later on went on to win the Dronacharya Award. The first time I went to his academy, he rejected me.

"You are too young and small. Come back in one or two years, I'll take you under my wing them," he said.

When I went back after a couple of years, he told me, "You are too weak and fragile. You need to become stronger." But this time, I would not move an inch. Seeing my insistance and determination, he finally relented and inducted me into his academy.

Most of the time, I was playing with players who were much senior to me. I was a little frail. So, obviously, I would get bullied, physically, on the pitch. I just did not have the strength to take on the much bigger players. 

There was only one thing I could do, beat them with my skill. For this, I practised for days and for hours. I never stopped. 

When I was about 13, I was in the junior team camp but I got injured and had to leave. 

"You are not eligible for the camp. There is no chance you would ever make the Indian team," they told me.

A year later, I made my debut for the senior national team at the Champions Challenge tournament in Russia.

Before that, I was in the team during the 2008 Olympic qualification phase. But I was so young, I had no idea what the Olympics were, and why it was such a big fuss. I was playing for fun. 

After one of the games, I noticed all the senior players were crestfallen, some of them were even crying. "Why are they crying?," I asked.

I was so naive. I did not know not qualifying for the Olympics was such a crime. I did not know what it meant to play in the Olympics. I used to think that women's hockey is not a part of the Olympics. Maybe, it was because the Indian women's team never played in the Olympics.

At that time, I just wanted to play for India, I just wanted to play alongside the seniors and learn as much as possible from them.

I remember one particular incident very distinctly. We had just lost to USA 4-0. After the match, Suman Bala, one of the most experienced players in the team, was sitting beside me. The players of the USA team were passing by us.

"Did you see how they played? Four years from now, you have to play like this," she told me, pointing towards the USA players. 

I did not have any clue why she said that... I did not get the 'four years' reference.

At such a young age, when you fail to win anything major, you start feeling like your career is over. "Why am I still playing?" I asked myself repeatedly.At one time, I did not even know what it meant to be an Olympian. We were going through a tough time when I started playing for India. We failed to bag a medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games at home. We also failed to finish on the podium at the 2010 Asian Games

But then, I started dreaming of qualifying for the Olympics.

Dreams are funny things, aren’t they?

Because I was so young and naive, I believed that 2012 would be my only chance... I cannot simply afford to lose. I was remembering those words about 'playing like them in four years' time'.

However, again, we lost to South Africa 3-1 in the final and failed to book a place at the London Games. I was heartbroken. The entire night, I cried. I cried, sitting outside my hotel room, alone.  

That's when I understood why four years ago everyone was crying. That's when I first realised the importance of playing at the Olympics, how much hard work one needs to put in to even be there.

I even considered giving up the sport. But, at the same time, I refused to give up on my dream... One day, I will play in the Olympics.

Then, the 2013 Junior World Cup gave me a much-needed boost. Winning the best player of the tournament award gave me confidence and motivation to do better, to do more. A bronze at the Asian Games, next year, gave me a further push.

Rani in
In training

I started believing that we were on the right track. I started believing that qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics might be a very real possibility.

The last round of qualifying (at the Hockey World League) was the stage where we said to ourselves that this is our last chance.

There had been so many players who had come and gone. No one could qualify for the Olympics. I was thinking to myself if we don't qualify, then who will? By then, Olympics had become my obsession. 

"We have to finish in the top five. We must qualify for Rio," I had told myself, and, we did.

It was another thing that the performance in Rio wasn't up to the mark. But still, it was a huge achievement for all of us. It was the first time in 36 years that the women had qualified.

Before that, young girls would only dream of playing hockey for the country. Now, they can dream of representing the country at the biggest stage, the Olympics.

Now, we are going to play in the World Cup, my second one. There are many players in the team for whom it will be their first World Cup. I help them out with what I learned in 2010. I also try and help the young athletes in my hometown now and try to do my bit for the Shahabad academy.

Through my career, I have learned a few things of which the most important are friendship and fair play. Once I understood the meaning of Olympics, its values of friendship, respect and excellence, it helped me become a better player and a better person in general. Now, I truly understand the real meaning of Olympism and it is through sport, that I and my family have earned a place in society

It gives me pride to say that now girls can take up any sport in the country. Even if the neighbours flinch, the parents will have the courage, they will believe that someday, our little daughter might win laurels for India.

But one thing I am most happy is that my father doesn't have to work anymore. 

"It's time for you to rest now. I'll take care of things now," I tell him.

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Rani Rampal
OFFICIAL
Rani Rampal is the captain of Indian women's hockey national team. At the age of 15, she was the youngest player in the national team which participated in the 2010 World Cup. She was conferred the "Best Young Player of the Tournament" award at the Women's Hockey World Cup 2010, recognizing her stellar performance as the top field goal scorer in the tournament. After playing with India's national team at 2010 Commonwealth Games and 2010 Asian Games, Rani Rampal was included in the FIH Women's All-Star Team of 2010.
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