Reluctant parents, financial disability, not to forget, a discouraging society that raises a brow or two at the thought of their girls getting into the playground wrapped in skirts, with a stick in their hands. When Rani Rampal faced Australia in the Olympic quarter-finals on Monday, she wasn't facing the biggest challenge of her life.
For the 26-year-old captain of the Indian women's hockey team, the biggest challenge was landing into the hockey field itself. "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," she had told Humans of Bombay many years back in an interview.
Today, with a semi-final berth at the Tokyo Olympics secured firmly for India, as she looks back at her journey, each challenge becomes an inspiration for generations to come.
Parents, coach, society
Poverty never strikes alone; it is notorious for bringing along a vicious circle of difficulties and challenges, hurdles and disabilities. Some of them even debilitating. Rani's father was a cart-puller in Shahabad Markanda, Haryana and a mother worked on a meagre salary as a house-maid and collectively, parents earned not more than Rs 100 a day.
The parents not being in a position to support her hockey dreams, at first discouraged her from the idea. But Rani persisted, because she was meant to. A broken hockey stick picked up from the ground sufficed for the moment. She practiced in salwar kameez instead of a track suit, but not before having been rejected several times and finally convincing the coach by begging.
"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 I wasn't strong enough to pull through a practice session." She adds, "I begged the coach for a chance. Maine bahut mushkil se convince kiya unko finally."
The money, the milk, the training
Goes without saying that wasn't the only person she had to convince. "When I told my family, they said, 'Ladkiyan ghar ka kaam hi karti hai. Hum tumhe skirt pehen kar khelne nahi denge. I'd plead with them, bargain, negotiate. My family reluctantly gave in."
As for the relatives, even after she got a national call to join the hockey team at the age of 14, relatives were only interested in her marital prospects. "They would only ask me when I was planning on getting married. But by now my father supported me and said I could play to my heart's content."
On a time-limit to prove her mettle, now began another set of challenges for Rani. Training would start early in the morning and so would Rani's hurdles. "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."
She reveals further: "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."
Aye Aye, captain
Rani started learning the sport at the age of six and has been one of the strong pillars of the women's hockey team since she was 14-years-old. Also the age when she played her first senior World Cup in 2010 and top-scorer for India with seven goals and was declared the 'Young Player of the Tournament.'
This is her second successive Olympics and she has been in the sport for more than a decade now. It was Rani who scored the goal that clinched India's berth in Tokyo, in the final qualification match against the United States in Bhubaneshwar. Prior to Tokyo Olympics, she had earned 241 international caps and scored 117 goals.
Her most difficult days might be over, but she hasn't forgotten those who stood by her. "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."
The first ever financial reward came in the way of Rs 500 after winning a tournament. "My parents had never held so much of money in one go. That's when I promised them that one day, we would have our own house." That dream came true in 2017. Today her dream of Olympics final is shared by more than one billion.
The nation, the netizens, are all floored
They are floored as much by India's hockey win as they are by her grit, determination and steely will power. The noise from the huge round of applause hasn't died down a bit, but hopefully that will not distract India's hockey captain at the moment.