At the outset of telling her story, Sangeeta Bera declares: “I got bored, sitting at home when pregnant.” Till then, her life had been a fast-paced sprint — she played prop on India’s Rugby Sevens team. The game itself had become an addictive “need” after she moved from sprints at Kolkata’s Sports Authority of India centre, and started twinkle-toed criss-cross dashes in rugby’s crispest format.
She was still dizzy from the joy of having represented the country at the pre-Olympic qualifiers in 2015, when a positive maternity test sent her verbally tackling the biggest challenge of her life: her well-meaning doctor. “One day, the doctor told me that it would have to be a caesarean birth. The baby was weighing more than 4 kg and the doctor said there was no chance this would be a normal delivery,” she recalls, on the eve of the Indian team’s departure for the biggest meet of their lives yet: a Rugby 15s tournament in Singapore, the country’s first at the Asian level.
Sangeeta who plays Lock in the longer format, remembers how agitated she grew at the doctor who was predicting a C-section. “The doctor was saying I wouldn’t be able to bear the pain because the baby was weighing above 4kg. I said I am an athlete and an international rugby player and I challenged the hospital that I’ll show them I could have a normal delivery,” she says, her defiance from December 2016 still blazing in her words. Big decision
The doctors would try reasoning with her, saying she was almost 34 and they’d never seen this before. “Firstly, I was confident I was fit. But more than that, I knew if I had to make a quick comeback to rugby, I needed a normal delivery. It was a risk for the world and they called my husband to sign forms, but I knew I had to return to my sport without delays,” recalls the sub-inspector with Kolkata Police.
After she delivered a son, the doctors would cheerfully hand her a certificate which proclaimed her as the mother of the 4 kg 10 gm baby. “Normal delivery, they underlined it. That day, I wasn’t proud because maa ban gayi ya beta ho gaya. All that didn’t matter. I was proud of my normal delivery. As a sportswoman, I had done everything possible — exercise, diet, bearing the pain which is there I won’t deny — to ensure it’s not a C-section. I really didn’t want to stay away from rugby, but it would’ve been much tougher in my sport to come back if it wasn’t a normal delivery,” she says with a wide grin.
Sangeeta returned to the paddock three months after her baby’s birth. Eighteen months later, she heads into a crunching 15s battle with Singapore and the Philippines starting June 2. She reckons global stars like Serena Williams or MC Mary Kom have shown massive grit to return after tough childbirths. “Any woman can become a mother. But returning to sport needs discipline. I weighed 95 kg just after delivering. Now I’m 60,” she says, describing her painstaking hike back to peak fitness. When she was scouted out by Jungle Crows coach Paul Walsh in Kolkata in 2010, she had never held the oblong ball in her hand before. “Sprints is all I knew. But 100m is predictable — you know the start and end. Rugby is very exciting, I learn new things everyday. Coaches teach us to play safe and systematic rugby. It’s not hard after that,” she stresses.
Her husband Ramkrishna Parida, a Mumbai boy who coached at Bombay Gymkhana, moved to Kolkata to take care of the child, when Sangeeta is away at camps. “Very few people can represent India. Not for one second do I think of my child when on the field. If I’m playing, I’m 120 per cent focused. My husband and parents have told me not to worry,” she says. “When I run towards the try-line, it’s like I have a superpower,” she explains the head rush she feels each time. Her wisdom is something her younger teammates appreciate. “You can never be overconfident until the ball has crossed the line.”
The exhilaration she feels in rugby has defined her every decision in life. “I keep telling young teammates — just because I had the job, promotion, marriage, children, it didn’t mean I was content. I needed to play rugby for India,” she says.
“I realised I was bored sitting at home when pregnant. I also remember thinking at that time how I can beat 18-19-year-old girls at rugby with my speed and brains,” she laughs. Then, one thing led to the other, and Sangeeta Bera is on India’s biggest 15s sojourn to Singapore.