‘The difficulty came during practice when my coach explained drills. I did not understand anything he said because I only knew Mizo. I often felt sad and cried a lot. But my dream of playing for India toughened me.’
India’s win at the FIH Olympic qualifiers against the US was perhaps written in the stars. It was Rani Rampal’s goal that saved them the blushes, much like she netted in 2015 against Japan where India qualified for Rio Olympics after an interminable wait of 36 years.
The country will now have a representation in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after an aggregate 6-5 win over the US. Such wins may not look clinical, but these will help lay the foundation on which the future of this sport will stand.
Along the way, many faces will become a part of this journey like Indian team’s forward Lalremsiami, who hails from Mizoram.
A resident of Kolasib, Siami, as she is now fondly called by her team members, her journey started way before she actually started playing hockey.
It was not an easy one as she struggled with Hindi. In a team’s sport, and to perform as a unit, communication among players is of utmost importance, especially in hockey where the team’s players mostly communicate in Hindi.
Despite struggles what remained constant was her focus on training, brilliance on the field and love for the game.
In a telephonic conversation with The Sunday Guardian, Lalremsiami takes us through her life’s journey and her preparation for the world’s biggest spectacle—the Olympics.
Q. Tell us about your childhood. Were you always interested in sports?
A. Yes, I was interested and enjoyed sports since childhood. But as a child, I didn’t participate in any games or sports at a professional level. In our school, Wednesday afternoon used to be game period and we played football and other traditional games. I always actively participated in such activities as I was really fond of physical activities even before I came to know about hockey.
Q. Why did you take up hockey especially when it is unheard of in Mizoram? They are mostly involved in basketball or football…
A. Initially when I started playing hockey, I did not have any long term plan or given any serious thought into it. When I was in school, hockey was included as one of the disciplines in the inter-school sports and since players were required for our school team, I volunteered for it. As hockey has a lot of rules—from how to hold and control the stick, all of us, who were to play hockey for school were sent to get some basic training from Miss Malawmi, who at that time was involved in hockey coaching in Kolasib District.
I didn’t restrict it to play in school as I was interested and enjoyed playing the game. So, I continued to go for my practice. One day, Miss Malawmi asked me if I enjoyed playing hockey. I responded that I do love to play the game. Then she told me that there was regular practice in the morning and afternoon and asked me to join if I wanted. I began practicing in the morning and after school. That is how I started playing the game.
Q. Who was the person you looked up to in the early days of your childhood?
A. Like I said, I practiced hockey with Miss Malawmi, her full name is Lallawmawmi. She was a hockey coach in our district. After several practices, I became very fond of the game and Miss Malawmi must have noticed my skills and passion. So, one day, she asked me if I wanted to play hockey seriously. I apprised her of my interest in a formal training. She told me about the hockey academy located at Thenzawl in Serchhip district. That’s the only academy in our state.
She explained to me that you can practice in the morning and afternoon there. I was told that I will have to stay in a hostel and could do continue school during day time. She also told me about the trials and process of getting into the academy and spoke to Madam Pari who was the head at the Academy. I was enthusiastic about the whole idea.
Q. When exactly did you start feeling that you can play and excel in this game at the highest level?
A. I never could have imagined in my wildest dream that I will play for the national team. While at the academy in Thenzawl, my passion and love for the game of hockey made me happy. Keeping other things aside, the chance to just play the game was rewarding enough for me. We were given intensive training by Miss Pari. Those days I just focused on playing the game without any future plans. Miss Pari and other senior players like U Ruati, U Tei, U Ruatfeli and U Nutei were always there to guide, encourage and motivate us. I got to know from them that some players joined the railways and they were supporting their parents and family. I was inspired by this story and determined to support my parents and family through my earnings from the game. But I was clueless as to how to make that happen. I didn’t know how to go about it. My dream was to join the railways and support my family and become an Indian national player. A more concrete idea for my future began while I was at the Thenzawl academy.
Q. Was language ever a barrier when you went out of Mizoram and played at the national level?
A. With four other girls, I went out of Mizoram for the first time in my life. We were to join the National Hockey Academy in Delhi. None of us were able understand or speak Hindi, let alone converse. It was in October, 2016. Then, in December, a selection trial to join Indian camp was organised at our academy and we underwent trial. Three Mizos and one from another state were selected for the Indian team. After joining the Indian team, my friends moved back to Delhi. I was left alone. I faced language barrier. I didn’t know anything apart from saying my name.
It was difficult for me as I could not understand anything that was said. In the field and as I know language used in the sport, I was able to establish communication with other players.
The difficulty came during practice when coach sir explained drills and made important announcements. I did not understand anything he said. I often felt very sad and cried a lot. But my dream of playing for India toughened me. I told myself repeatedly that if there are hard times, good times will not be far behind. Being the only Mizo in the camp, I struggled. But my camp mates and friends from other states were always ready to lend me a helping hand and they tried their best at explaining things I was unable to understand. They made my life easier.
Q. Are there any problems you faced initially considering India is all about cricket? We don’t think much about hockey, especially women’s hockey…
A. No, I did not face any problem in this matter except for the language barrier.
Q. Do you think Indian hockey has improved in terms of facilities and opportunities provided to the players?
A. Yes. Hockey India is providing us with the best of support and facilities.
Q. Talking about the match… What was the team’s plan against the US?
A. As a team, qualifying was our main focus. Even though we were to play only two matches, we were training very hard for the game. We did not qualify in the Olympics after settling for silver at the Asian games. Right after the final, we shifted our focus and aim for the matches in November. None of us knew which team we were to face in the qualifying round. In order to qualify, we initially focused on the FIH Olympic qualifiers tournament at Hiroshima. Our preparation for the tournament was rigorous. We trained and drilled really hard and won the tournament. As a champion team at the FIH tournament, we were qualified to play against the US in the November matches. The preparation was non-stop. We came to know our opposition (US) late as the announcement was made promptly.
Q. What was the message after conceding goals during the match against US?
A. We won the first match comfortably. The score was 5-1. We knew the only goal we conceded was due to our own mistakes. We performed well in the first match. But in the second match, we conceded four goals without a single goal from our side. We played well but made a lot of mistakes. Our coach pointed out the mistakes we were committing. We gave it all and the last minute goal by Rani Rampal gave us 6-5 win over US.
Q. What was the feeling just after the goal? Were you happy with your contribution?
A. I am satisfied with my contribution. Our hard work and dedication paid off and now we are qualified to play the Olympics.
Q. How is the preparation going, now that the team has qualified for the Olympics?
A. We are on leave till 16 November. We will begin our camp in Bengaluru. It starts on 17th where we will concentrate on our fitness. There will be strength training as well.
Q. Confident of a good show at the Olympics?
A. We are confident. We played well at the qualification round. Preparation, commitment, hard work and training are important. We will give our best and I am hopeful that we will do well.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. Our focus at the moment is Olympics. Now that we have qualified, our aim is to win gold in the Olympics.