Tokyo Olympics: Through pain & poverty, hockey captain Rani kept dreaming of donning India colours

Rani-led India secured a semifinal berth at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday

Tokyo: Indian women’s hockey team captain Rani Rampal’s determination not to give an inch till the last minute of every single game she has played for the country perhaps comes from her upbringing in a poverty-stricken family, which couldnt even afford two square meals a day. She had to drink milk diluted with copious amount of water to meet her nutritional requirements.

The Rani-led India secured a semifinal berth at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday, defeating world No. 2 Australia by a solitary goal, the team’s best performance ever at the quadrennial showpiece.

Rani’s father was a cart-puller in Shahabad Markanda, Haryana and was not in a position to support her take up hockey as a career. But the daughter persisted with her desire to represent the country, practicing with a broken hockey stick and running around in a salwar kameez instead of a track suit.

MS Education Academy

Rani, who started learning the sport at the age of six, has been the mainstay of the Indian women’s hockey team since she was 14 years old. That was the year in 2010 when she played her first senior World Cup and top-scored for India with seven goals and was declared the ‘Young Player of the Tournament’.

But behind her success is years of extreme struggle with life when her father pulled a cart and mother worked as a house maid, their collective daily earning not more than Rs 100 a day.

“I wanted an escape from my life; from the electricity shortages, to the mosquitoes buzzing in our ear when we slept, from barely having two square meals to seeing our home getting flooded when it rained. My parents tried their best, but there was only so much they could do — papa was a cart-puller and maa (mother) worked as a maid,” Rani had told Humans of Bombay in an interview a few years back.

“There was a hockey academy near my home, so I’d spend hours watching players practice — I really wanted to play. Papa would earn Rs 80 a day and couldn’t afford to buy me a stick. Every day, I’d ask the coach to teach me too. He’d reject me because I was malnourished. He’d say, ‘You aren’t strong enough to pull through a practice session.’

“So, I found a broken hockey stick on the field and began practicing with that — I didn’t have training clothes, so I was running around in a salwar kameez. But I was determined to prove myself. I begged the coach for a chance — maine bahut mushkil se convince kiya unko finally (I managed to convince them with great difficulty),” said Rani.

The 26-year-old Rani, who is playing in her second successive Olympics and has been in the gruelling sport from more than 11 years, is still the mainstay of the team. She had scored the goal that clinched India’s berth in Tokyo, in the final qualification match against the United States in Bhubaneswar. Having made her debut at the age of 14, she had earned 241 international caps till before the Tokyo Olympics and had scored 117 goals.

Along the way there were several hurdles, with even Rani’s family not in favour of her taking up the sport.

“When I told my family (that she wanted to play hockey), they said, ‘Ladkiya ghar ka kaam hi karti hai,’ and ‘hum tumhe skirt pehen kar khelne nahi denge (Girls only do household work and we won’t allow you to play in skirts)’. I’d plead with them saying, ‘Please mujhe jaane do (let me play). If I fail, I’ll do whatever you want.’ My family reluctantly gave in.”

The family didn’t even have a clock, so Rani’s mother used to stay awake till the break of dawn, wake her daughter up for practice and then go to sleep.

“Training would start early in the morning. We didn’t have a clock, so mom would stay up and look at the sky to check if it was the right time to wake me. At the academy, it was mandatory for each player to bring 500 ml of milk. My family could only afford 200 ml; without telling anyone, I’d mix the milk with water and drink it because I wanted to play.

“My coach supported me through thick and thin; he’d buy me hockey kits and shoes. He even allowed me to live with his family and took care of my dietary needs. I’d train hard and wouldn’t miss a single day of practice.

“I remember earning my first salary; I won Rs. 500 after winning a tournament and gave the money to papa. He hadn’t ever held so much money in his hands before. I promised my family, ‘One day, we’re going to have our own home’; I did everything in my power to work towards that.

“After representing my state and playing in several championships, I finally got a national call up at the age of 14. Still, my relatives would only ask me when I was planning on getting married. But papa told me, ‘Play to your heart’s content.’ With my family’s support, I focused on doing my best for India and eventually, I became captain of the Indian hockey team.

Rani says that she fulfilled her parents’ dream of a home in 2017 and it was an emotional moment for all of them.

“And then in 2017, I finally fulfilled the promise I made to my family and bought them a home. We cried together and held each other tightly!”

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