The squad which bagged a sixth-place Group B finish in Rio in 2016 is much better prepared for the Tokyo Olympics. But there are plenty of challenges that lie ahead.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, an air of uncertainty has clouded the mind of every athlete who aspired to be at the Tokyo Olympics, and the women's hockey team was no exception. But Rani and her team took the extra year of this Olympic cycle in their stride. She explained:
"This time it was a five-year cycle. So we had an extra year. It is not easy to push yourself physically and mentally in that extra year."
The team pushed itself to look at the positive side of things and probed into the areas where they could work on.
"It was not easy. The coach explained to us not to worry about things which were not in our hands." Rani said.
In the testing and tiring conditions of the pandemic, the coaching team upped its game and was always there to help the squad in any way possible. Not withdoling any praise for the coaching staff, Rani said:
"The coaching team was available for us 24x7. Whatever the problem was, be it personal, family issues or problems with the body, the coaching team was always there. SAI (Sports Authority of India) has also helped us a lot. The team is excited and is full of belief!"
However, the coaching staff can only do so much and at the end of the day, the onus falls on the players to cope with the pressure of the Olympics.
So how does Rani feel about her team? How good is the mix of youth and experience in the team? To that, she said:
"There are many young and experienced players in the team. Every player has her own unique quality. We have to sometimes shuffle the players around." Rani said.
Commenting on the overall balance of the squad, Rani said:
"Sometimes, a strikers can defend well, so we have to put those players at the heart of the defense. Deep Grace is very experienced. We have a balanced team in all three departments; defenders, mid-fielders and strikers. We can use everyone's quality to put up a good show at the Tokyo Olympics."
The Rio Olympics was the first time in 36 years that the women's team participated in the Games. They failed to last beyond the group stages, however, so qualifying for the quadrennial event again has raised expectations even further.
Rani sees no difference between an Olympic medalist and a first-timer at the Games, and she feels that helps manage the pressure and expectations. Comparing the situation to that experienced by a student appearing for an exam, Rani said:
"The pressure can be on any athlete. Even if an athlete has won a medal at the Olympics and is going to the Games for the second time, she too is under pressure. Like there in an anxiety before an exam, the same is with an athlete."
With the pandemic still raging, the Tokyo Olympics will be unlike any other before it. Players will have to undergo daily testing, follow safety norms, and follow the prescribed guidelines to the T.
So how is the team going to cope with these added burdens? Rani said:
"We know what to expect. We traveled to Germany recently so we know how difficult things are. It starts with traveling. We have to get tested before traveling, we have to get tested after reaching. We are tested before our training sessions. It is not easy but we cannot do much about it. These are the things we cannot avoid. We can wear masks, which is not normal for an athlete, and keep everyone around us safe."
There are times when the tightest of matches are decided by which side was fitter on the day. So it makes sense to run that extra yard or sustain the heat for a bit longer, and could well be the difference between winning or losing a medal.
The team has worked hard at boosting their fitness levels for the past two years but how fit are the players feeling ahead of the Games? Are they good enough to give the Olympic and World Champions a run for their money on the field? Commenting on the team's fitness, Rani said:
"We don't lack in fitness compared to any team. Earlier we used to feel that there is a difference in the fitness level. But now we don't feel like that. We have worked really hard on our fitness."
Aside from fitness, coaching, experience, pressure-management, and team-balance, what else does it take to be crowned Olympic champions? Summing up the process with an air of confidence, Rani said:
"No one becomes an Olympic champion overnight, not even in one month or even in a year. There is a process. The team who are the Olympic champions also started from some point. We have also started the process and the coaching staff is helping us reach the mission."