Traditionally, Indian hockey has been dominated by certain regions of the country. Places like Punjab, Coorg, Odisha, Jharkhand, etc. have been great nurseries of the sport. Till some time ago, Mizoram wouldn't have featured anywhere in a conversation about hockey in India.
But now, a massively talented girl has emerged from the state who is fast becoming one of the finest center-forwards in Asia. Lalremsiami, the teenage sensation from Kolasib in the north-eastern province has fought against huge odds to make her way into the Indian team and establish herself there.
When she first arrived on the stage, Sami, as she is known to her teammates, couldn't speak a word of English or Hindi. But now, through her hard work and love for books, she has become quite capable of communicating and expressing herself.
In an exclusive interview with Akshay Saraswat of International Business Times, India, the 19-year old talked about her journey to the top. The fact that many of her sentences begin with 'Haanji' - the customary expression of Punjabi girls, shows that she has been picking up a lot of linguistic skillls from her teammates.
Here is the full interview with this amazing athlete.
When you first came into the Indian team, you couldn't speak a word of Hindi. Now you can. So, how did you learn the language?
Lalremsiami: So, I have the translation book which I read whenever I have time. And all the didis (senior players in the team) helped me a lot. Yes, I wasn't able to speak Hindi at all in the beginning. But thanks to them, when I speak wrongly, they correct me and tell me how to say something correctly.
Whatever I say, they help me by correcting it. While training, on the field, off the field, they have helped me a great deal in learning Hindi. I also have books which I read. So, this is how I have learned Hindi a little bit.
Tell us how you got involved in hockey. Your state doesn't have a great culture of hockey, so, how did you get started in this sport?
Lalremsiami: In my state Mizoram, not too many people play hockey. I guess only around 1-2% people are involved with this sport. I started playing hockey in my school. Then, there is a SAI academy in Thenzawl in Mizoram. So, my school teachers asked me whether I like playing hockey. I said yes. They said that if you have to play hockey, then, in Thenzawl, there is a big hostel where you can get admitted and play the game. So, I went there and played hockey.
How old were you when you first played hockey?
Lalremsiami: It was in 2011 that I first went to Thenzawl to play hockey. At that time, my age was 11.
But at what age did you find out about the sport of hockey?
Lalremsiami: I must have been 10 years old as it was in 2010. I didn't know much about hockey and the national team at that time. I just played the game. Then, when I went to Thenzawl and started playing hockey, our teachers told us stories about Indian hockey and informed us that some of the senior players work in railways. At that time, I realised that someday, I too will play for India and represent my country.
When you got involved with hockey, how much did your family support you?
Lalremsiami: My family supported me a lot.
And how did you end up becoming a forward?
Lalremsiami: When I was in Thenzawl, I played as a mid-fielder but my coach asked me to play as a striker. So, from that time, I started playing as a forward.
Are you the only good player from Mizoram in hockey or are there other good players as well who are coming through?
Lalremsiami: Even before me, there have been some international players from Mizoram. One of the players from our state even became a coach at the national level. There are players younger than me also in Thenzawl whom I teach sometimes. They will get better with time as well. Among my friends, three players form Mizoram were recently part of a junior hockey camp.
How far was the SAI academy from your home?
Lalremsiami: I live in Kolasib while Thenzawl is in Serchhip district. Serchhip is around 8-9 hours from my home. Mizoram has only one training centre, the one in Thenzawl.
How much of a sporting culture does your state have?
Lalremsiami: In our state also, there is passion for sports, but mostly for football. The boys in Mizoram usually play only football. Hockey is played by a very few people. Only football is popular.
Are there any other sports in Mizoram, apart from hockey and football, which are popular?
Lalremsiami: Yes, taekwondo, karate, volleyball, etc. are also played but when it comes to popularity, only football is popular.
When you came into the Indian team, you were just 17 years of age. How hard was it to get used to being in the national side at such a young age and with the problem of language?
Lalremsiami: The most difficult part was not knowing Hindi or even English. It was very difficult to talk. I still wonder how I managed everything when I first came into the team. At that time, my seniors and coaches supported me a lot. They all knew that I don't understand Hindi, so they explained things to me very slowly, with the help of hand gestures. I also worked very hard on improving myself and understanding what I need to do.
Your captain Rani told us that you like to read books also. What type of books do you enjoy?
Lalremsiami: Yes, I really like reading books. So, if a book in Mizoram is awarded the Book of the Year award, I would like to read it. I just love reading books, whatever type they may be.
You usually play as a center-forward and your captain Rani also plays as a forward. How good is the understanding between you two?
Lalremsiami: It's good because if Rani didi has the ball, we know she won't let it go waste. If she gets the ball in the 'D,' she gets at least a PC if not a goal. She is also a very experienced player and if there is a good opportunity, she doesn't let it go and usually gets a goal.
We don't have as much skill as Rani didi but we have speed and other things. Rani didi helps us in improving our skills and also understanding how to make good passes. She tells us everything regarding the job of a striker like when we need to try for a goal. So, it's been great fun working with her. She is always around to help us improve.
Even before coming into the national team, you must have faced some difficulties due to the language barrier. How tough was the time when you were playing at the domestic level?
Lalremsiami: Yes, when I came to the national academy in Delhi, I didn't know Hindi at all and could only say "My name is Lalremsiami." But I loved hockey a lot and that got me through.
Your coach Sjoerd Marijne also said a lot of great things about you. Have you also benefitted by his support?
Lalremsiami: Yes, very much so. Sjoerd sir is very good because he motivates all the players and is always ready to help them.