Early morning at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru is busy time. A group of girls in orange suits rush out of a beige building at 6.15am. “We are getting late. Hope all of you have taken your training mats,” shouts one of them, as they rush past me. More girls follow. “They are our junior players,” a caretaker explains. As I cast my eyes back at the girls, I could not but notice the bold slogan printed across their suits: “Odisha, India's Best Kept Secret.” The caretaker is quick with the explanation: “Odisha government sponsors our hockey players.”
Suddenly, from the crowd of orange suits emerge a girl in a purple shade of the same attire. She smiles, and waves at me. “I can’t miss my practice session,” she says, a firm yet polite voice, the kind which is perfect for singing alto. Meet Rani Rampal, 24, the captain of the Indian women's hockey team, the girl who saw beyond the walls of her shanty in a village in Haryana. A prodigy who made her India debut at the age of 14! The star skipper is still glowing in her team’s 3-1 victory over Japan to clinch the FIH Women's Series Finals at Hiroshima in June 2019, which qualified India for the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020. “Our team is going to Tokyo in the second week of August for the Pre-Olympic matches. Though it is all about testing the ground and getting acquainted with the arena, the team is super excited,” Rani says.
More girls wearing purple training suits walk to the quarter-angle area and they break into giggles and whispers; purple is the colour of the training suit for the senior hockey team.
The training over, Rani announces “breakfast and then gym”, and walks into the dining area. Now, who could be this happy about following the same routine every day? That is the difference between a sportsperson and a normal person―discipline.
Time for the first leg of our photoshoot at the gym―a little foundation, a little gloss and some light eye make-up. After every stroke of the make-up brush, she looks at her phone’s selfie camera like a curious child. “I don’t want too much make-up for gym; it might distract me,” she tells the make-up artist. The artist nods, and she continues to track every development on her phone. Talk about staying focused.
The gym had girls from the junior hockey team working out. Enter Rani, and they all look at her in awe. Rani does not stop to exchange pleasantries; she picks up the dumb-bells. “I don’t interrupt other players’ training or let anyone interrupt mine. This is very important for us; not just to stay fit but also to recover from injuries and play well on the field,” Rani says. The girls train at the gym for an hour every day under the guidance of a scientific instructor, who also charts their diet.
On our way back to the hostel, we saw one of the players in crutches, limping her way up on the inclined road. “Stop!” Rani tells her PR, who was driving us back to the hostel. She goes out of the car and helps the girl inside. “Why didn’t you ask someone to drop you at the hostel? I know it is difficult for you ask people for a favour but don’t strain yourself so much,” Rani tells the girl. There was no sympathy in whatever she said. Concern and empathy? Yes, indeed!
On reaching the hostel, she helps her out of the car and excuses herself to go freshen up. “She makes sure that all her mates get treated right,” says Nandani Kumar, Rani’s publicist. “It was very different when Rani joined the team. The senior girls were a mean bunch. They bullied her a lot. But Rani cares a lot about these girls.”
So, when did it all start?
Kazan, Russia, June 2009: Rani trips her opponents on her way into the shooting circle. She looks right into the eye of the lone defender, and then, for a fraction of a second, looks away. That distracts the defender, who is expecting a pass. Rani swings her stick; the crowd hears her scream―goal! The teenager from Shahabad Markanda in Kurukshetra district―an obscure village in Haryana―powers India to a win in the Champion’s Challenge Tournament. It does not stop there; she bags the titles of ‘The Top Goal Scorer’ and ‘The Youngest Player’ in her first international tournament. Ten years down the lane, Rani is already a veteran with over 200 international appearances.
“The journey has been nothing less than an adventure. Back in 2009, I did not know the importance of qualifying for the Olympics. For me, the biggest deal was the Common Wealth Games. Since the time I made it to the Indian team, I wanted to replicate the 2002 CWG performance. But, unfortunately, I couldn’t do it. Now, one of my biggest desire is to win the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo,” Rani says.
At the age of six, when girls play with dolls, makeup and kitchen sets, Rani went up to her father and expressed her desire to play hockey. He was not impressed. According to Rani, getting her enrolled in the school itself was a luxury for a cart-puller who used to earn less than Rs 100 a day. “They looked at me as if I had done something wrong or said a foul word. Nobody in my family is good at any sport and I have no clue how this happened to me. I used to watch players at the hockey training academy in my school and I just wanted it so bad; I kept nagging my parents, day and night,” she says. Finally, after a lot of crying and pleading, her father gave in. Relatives opposed the decision and neighbours questioned her parents' sanity but, the couple pressed on.
“My relatives used to keep on warning them saying that I would spoil the name of the family because I would be wearing small skirts and shorts. Now, the same people are proud of me and they send their children to play hockey. My parents never regretted their decision,” Rani says.
Permission from her parents wasn’t the only hurdle, though. When Rani went to Shahabad Hockey Academy, coach Baldev Singh rejected her outright. “My father and I thought the reason for his rejection was because of my frail physique. But that was not the case. He knew how poor we were back then and he did not want the sport to be an additional burden,” she says. Rani and her father did not give up though; they went back to him the following day. Baldev made her run a few laps and he was impressed with her agility―he let her join the training academy. Surely, it was one of his best decisions as Rani proved to be another feather in the cap of the Dronacharaya awardee.
“I knew that my family did not have the money to send me for coaching or get me a hockey kit. There were times when I thought about quitting hockey because of poverty. But Baldev sir has always been very supportive. Even the seniors at the academy were very encouraging; they gave me their old hockey kits for training,” she says.
Her family―parents, two brothers, their wives and children―used to live in a shanty. “My family struggled a lot. We did not even own a watch. My mother used to wake up early so that I could reach for my practice sessions in time,” Rani says.
When she was in Class VI, her school conducted a handwriting competition, in which the first prize was a clock. Though Rani’s handwriting wasn’t good, she worked hard on it and won the clock for her mother. Today, after years of using hand-me-down sticks, training suits and shoes, she gets custom-made sports goods for training and international sports events.
“As a child, I have always wanted to uplift the condition of my family. Hockey granted that desire. Now, we have a proper house and I feel so good every time I go there. My parents are not educated; they can’t even write their own names, forget about understanding hockey. Despite all that, they don’t miss any of my matches telecast on television. They have worked so hard for me. Now it is time for them to relax and my turn to serve them,” she says.
The journey has not been smooth for her. In 2007, Rani had a major back injury which stopped her from playing for about an year. She was bedridden and lost all hope of a comeback. “Doctors and my trainers told me that it might not be possible for me to get back on the field. I was only 36kg then and I was not fit to play. I was devastated as I thought it was the end of my career―all the sacrifices my parents had to make, all in vain. I refused to give up and recovered,” she says.
According to Rani, her body is injury-prone and despite being extra careful, she ends up with regular injuries. “I don’t let injuries pull me down. I always get back up with double strength,” she says.
“I have so many people here at SAI who are concerned about my well-being.
Everything from what I eat to what I do is monitored here. Now, I am not an ordinary girl and with that position comes great responsibility,” she says.
She plays as a striker and is known for her electric speed and stellar stick work. She has been hailed as one of the best women hockey players in the world. Along with her hockey training, she is also doing her master’s in English; she is in her second semester now. “I don’t have a specific reason as to why I chose to study English. All I know is that I wanted a master’s degree. I took a lot of time to complete my bachelor’s degree because of training and tournaments. I hope that does not happen for my post-graduate degree. I am not sure if I would clear all the papers but I have given it my best,” she says.
After almost three weeks of studying and writing exams, she is back at SAI for training. “Working hard is very important to me. It is through hard work that you influence people. I don’t want to be just another inspirational story that brings tears to the eyes of people, I want to be a powerful example to the ones around me,” she says.
Her face is radiant as she dons the glazing blue Indian jersey for the last photoshoot. She lifts her hockey stick for the last shot. Camera lights fire and it is picture perfect. With a smile and a wave, she rushes out of the field to change for her afternoon practice session. There was a moment before she left, when she looked longingly at the turf. Maybe this is what they call true love!
AT A GLANCE
Who is your role model?
I don’t have one. I am my own competition. Every day, I set my own goals and I challenge myself.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I want to be the best hockey player in the world. I am not looking at being famous, but I want to be an example. I believe in working hard and inspiring others through it.
What kind of food do you like?
I love South Indian food. Masala dosa is my favourite. I also love everything that my mother cooks.
Are you a fitness freak?
Health is money for me and so I put in an effort to stay fit but I am not a fanatic. Whenever I go home, my mother prepares a big spread. I eat all that she makes because I don’t like hurting her emotions. But then, I also make sure that I go running in the morning and do light exercise. Every time we get back from home to the camp, we have a fitness test and if they find out that we have put on weight, then we have rigorous training to get back in shape.
Who is the first person you call when you have a crisis?
My father. I am very attached to him. He can get a tad too emotional sometimes, but he is always there for me. I also talk to coach Baldev when I need advice on my game.
A country that you want to visit.
I have heard a lot about Switzerland and I hope I get to visit the country soon.
Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets. Whatever decisions I have made in life have been solid lessons for me; the ones that are not taught in a school or a university.
Who is your favourite celebrity?
I love Akshay Kumar. I find his energy contagious.
What is your favourite beverage?
I am a very moody person. I like tea sometimes, and sometimes I don’t like it. It all depends on my state of mind.
What is something that you are proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I represent India wherever I go.
What will you do if you receive a lot of money?
I’d probably think about what to do after I get it. But one thing I want to do is build a hockey academy for young girls in my village.
A funny incident in your life.
I can’t think of anything; maybe it is because I am a serious person.
What’s on Rani’s plate?
Early morning: Green tea, almonds
Breakfast: Fruit bowl, eggs, one slice bread
Lunch: Chicken, salad, one chapati, curd, seasonal vegetables
Snacks before training: Dry fruits
After training: Whey protein shake with water
Dinner: Chicken, salad, one chapati, lentils