The value of self-confidence: For the Indian women's hockey team, every opposition is beatable
The emotion and passion that sports can bring to us are beautiful. While I was waiting to interview the Indian Women's Hockey Team at the Sports Authority of India, Bengaluru, I could easily capture the determination of our women warriors in my mind.
When I finally saw them from a distance, I could not stop myself from appreciating their attitude off-the-field as well. They had a glint in their eyes.
They knew I was hoping to pick up on something, anything that could be used to enhance attention. There was no shortage of emotion on their face. It is a little hard to gauge the pulse of the players at that time, but I understood they were tired after what must have been a gruelling training session.
Smartly-dressed Ritu Rani, the captain of the national team, came forward and I introduced myself.
There was a lot of running around while I was talking to Ritu. The players were split into two groups. I spotted Poonam Rani and Sunita trying to find a bit of shade. There was very little shade except on one side where a building offered a bit of respite.
It was surprisingly breezy despite the heat going over 32 degrees, even in the shade. The sun shone brightly but just like the typical Bangalore weather, there was heavy rain the day before.
When I asked Ritu Rani how well she was hitting the ball, she promptly replied, "Pretty well. It rained yesterday, but we still trained and had an intense drill session in the afternoon."
It was a low-key reply to what has so far been a low-key journey for the Indian women's hockey team in spite of achieving so much.
Emphasising on Rio 2016, I asked, “What are your expectations from the Olympics?”
“This team qualified after a gap of 36 years. Our seniors fell at the final hurdle. But the positive thing about this team is that we have been playing together for quite some time now. So this team is special."
"What makes this team special?" I asked immediately. "Determination and fighting spirit," said the 24-year-old captain, with a spark in her eyes.
“The girls are ready to give their blood and sweat. We will leave no stone unturned to make our country proud at Rio," added Rani.
Rani Rampal, probably one of the most lethal strikers in world hockey, was waiting for her turn all this while.
"What has been your most satisfying moment so far?" I asked Rampal.
The 21-year-old made her debut for the Indian team when she was 15, in the 2010 World Cup. The Haryana-based forward announced her arrival at the world stage when she scored four goals at the Champions Challenge Tournament in Russia in 2009.
“Without a doubt, the Hockey World League Semifinal Round in Belgium where we overcame Japan 1-0 to make the Olympic cut,” said the daughter of a proud cart-puller.
It was getting hot and scorching, and I was feeling quite awkward because I felt like an intruder. But I continued with my questions, because that was what I was here to do. “How important is Rani Rampal for the team?” I asked the captain.
"Rani is very important for us. She has always been our scorer in crucial tournaments and I expect her to do well," came the reply.
Poonam Rani is one of the other survivors from the junior team that clinched bronze at the 2013 World Cup. The 23-year-old with a million-dollar smile was listening to Rani all this while.
I looked at her and asked, “What is the morale of the girls right now, Poonam?” She seemed eager to answer this even before I finished my question.
“The morale of the girls is quite high knowing that we will play in the Olympics after such a long time. Every player dreams of playing in the Olympics. My journey can be described in one word: DREAM," said the forward of the Rio-bound hockey team.
"There is no doubt we have improved as a team over the last years. We are a hard-working unit with proper planning and preparation," said Poonam.
I got back to Ritu. “India are ranked 13th in the world, and are set to face higher-ranked teams in Pool B at Rio. How challenging will that be for the girls?”
The woman responsible for leading the team to Olympic qualification shoots back quickly, “I never see any team as higher-ranked or lower-ranked. Be it Germany, Australia or Japan. All teams are beatable now. It will all depend on how we perform on that given day.”
“If you notice, we have beaten higher-ranked teams before. We have defeated Japan in Asian Games apart from defeating them at Belgium which ensured our qualification. Then, we have defeated China and South Africa recently. We have proved women's hockey in India is not dead yet. So things are looking good,” added Rani.
Deepika Thakur, the half-back of the team with more than 150 caps to her name, was present there too. “Deepika, you have been part of the women's team for quite some time now. How is the feeling of going to Rio?" I asked her.
“This is indeed a huge achievement. We have trained hard for this and have high expectations. We will be giving our hundred percent, no matter what the situation is."
Odisha’s Sunita Lakra, another forward in the team, said, “We are counting days and not wasting a single training session. Preparations are in full swing.”
The body language, temperament and passion on display looked similar to that of the girls in ‘Chak de India’. So I asked Ritu, "You have been the captain for five years. Who is the gunda (goon) of the team?"
She gave me a stern look and suddenly broke into a laughter, much to my relief. "No one; the senior players are kind of the gundas in the team.” (laughs again)
“Deepika Thakur at times is funny,” concluded Rani.
In the end, it was time for some photo sessions with exaggerated expressions and much laughter as I wrapped up my very satisfying day.
Down-to-earth off the pitch, these incredibly talented women are determined to make us proud this August. You can't help but believe they will end up being huge inspirations for the next generation.