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Friday, January 28, 2022

A challenging, but special year for women’s hockey

There may not have been a podium finish for the Indian women’s team at the Tokyo Olympics, but there was satisfaction in a job well done

Written by Rani Rampal | New Delhi |
Updated: January 1, 2022 9:13:54 am
Indian women’s hockey team skipper Rani Rampal (Photo: Instagram/Rani Rampal)

2021 was a special year, not just for women’s hockey but for all athletes. The last two years have been challenging. In 2020, when we were at our peak, the Olympic Games got postponed to 2021. It is very difficult for an elite athlete to push oneself mentally and physically for an extra year, particularly for an event like the Olympics where you are expected to give 100 per cent.

But the Sports Authority of India and Hockey India made things easier for us. They ensured we ate healthy, kept well, and remained
motivated through the lockdown period. April-May, when the second wave was at its peak, was a stressful time. We knew we were safe with the SAI, but were worried about our parents. The coaching staff would constantly talk to us to ascertain if everything was all right and we were doing fine mentally and emotionally. Hockey India ensured that the coaching staff checked on our well-being regularly.

Though 2021 ended without us standing on the podium, the affection we received from across India after returning from the Olympics has been overwhelming. I must admit that finishing fourth gave us a sense of satisfaction, especially since we had finished last in 2016. The love we have received gives us great confidence to do well in the coming years.

There have been many firsts in the past year and a half. We learnt a new thing called Zoom. When we were first told our meetings would happen through this app, we didn’t even know what the word “virtual” meant. We didn’t know what quarantine was or what Zoom meetings were. We had no clue about bio-bubbles.

Getting used to the virtual world was very difficult, especially during the lockdown months because you are so used to the physical presence of your coach, and face-to-face communication makes a lot of impact. But the coaching staff were brilliant in their role, talking with each one of us individually, and as a team. They made us feel secure. Anything we needed, they got done.

Tokyo was absolutely special. With so much happening in their country with Covid, our hosts, particularly the volunteers and the people of Japan, made things easy for us. There was zero panic; when someone tested positive, they had a plan in place. There was a great environment in the Olympic village. Testing was incredibly well-managed and the area where food was served was never crowded.

One day, when we were going from the village to the stadium, a person was holding a placard that read: “You win a medal or not, you are still a champion for us. Just be happy.” That made me realise how passionate the people in Japan are — to say that they will always love and respect athletes whether they win or lose, matters a lot to us. This passion was seen in the volunteers who went out of their way to help us with whatever we needed.

We didn’t celebrate winning the last two matches against South Africa and Ireland in the round-robin league because our fate to make the quarterfinal depended on the Ireland vs Great Britain match. If Ireland lost, then we would enter the quarters to play Australia. I remember not watching that match because of the tension. I was doing stretching exercises while the match was on. Someone came and informed me that we are through.

Our coach Sjoerd Marijne then called us for a meeting and instilled confidence in us. He asked us to start like it was a fresh tournament. And we did start afresh, beating Australia in the quarterfinal. It still warms my heart that many back home woke up early to watch us play that match.

But something that will always hurt me more than losing the bronze medal match is our loss to Argentina in the semis. It was a close match and we could have won it. In the final few moments, Gurjit got a deflection on her stick but missed the post by inches. That match would have changed our lives had we won.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2022 under the title ‘Playing In Difficult Times’. Rampal captained the Indian women’s hockey team at the Tokyo Olympics

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