To say that it has been a good start to the year for Indian women’s hockey team’s talismanic captain Rani Rampal would be an understatement. She won the Padma Shri on January 25 and five days later, she became the first ever hockey player to win the World Games Athlete of the Year award.

Add to this the fact that both these honours came soon after India’s dramatic qualification for this year’s Tokyo Olympics in November, in which Rani scored the winning goal.

With big awards come an increasing number of interviews and it is no different for Rani. The Indian team returned from New Zealand in the wee hours of Friday and for Rani, most of it has been spent in giving interviews, which often for an athlete means endless repetition of essentially the same sentences.

The 25-year-old, however, understands that this is part of her responsibilities as a prominent member of the national team.

“It’s not easy of course, to be speaking so much just after you have had a long flight. But then, if people want to listen to you it means you are doing something right. We share our experience so that others can learn from them. As children we all dream of the day we would see our names and faces in the news, so now we should try and enjoy it,” she told IANS.

Rani said that awards are also indicative of an upward trend in the visibility that the Indian team, and women’s hockey in general, has been receiving over the past few years.

“It has been a difficult journey and these awards are not given for a year’s performance,” she said.

“It takes into account how we got to that point. Women’s hockey has changed a lot since I started playing. So when I look back, it does feel good to know that I was part of this change, it is something that will be remembered in years to come. There is a lot of awareness about women’s hockey now. People know the team now and watch our matches,” she said.

When asked how different it is now compared to when she had started playing for the national team as a 14-year-old in 2009, Rani said, “In my eaVrly days with the team, we never got this much exposure. We had to wait for big tournaments like Asian Games and Commonwealth Games to play matches. We rarely got to play with good teams.

“Also, training was not done in such a scientific manner. The government has supported the players a lot and the infrastructure has improved along with our diet. We have video analysis now, which goes a long way in helping us improve on our errors,” she said.

The importance of all that goes behind the scenes for a team playing at a high level cannot be underplayed, she said.

“We can try doing as much high intensity training as we want, but if our nutrition is not good, our recovery will be affected. This in turn affects our training. Today, sports at the highest level requires you to be at your best, both physically and mentally,” she said.

Aside from aspects directly related to sports, Rani also encourages her teammates to complete their education as much as possible.

“It is something that I keep telling them—education is a lifetime investment. It helps keep your mind open, helps you make better decisions. It helps on the pitch too. It’s not just about getting a degree, education gives you a lot of positive vibes, which always helps in your game,” said Rani, who herself is pursuing a Master’s degree in English.

The Indian team is in the thick of preparations for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. While the men’s team has a ready-made schedule going into the Games thanks to the FIH Pro League, the women don’t have that with Hockey India not entering the team for the women’s Pro League.

They had a tour of China scheduled in March, but that now stands cancelled due to the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.

“I don’t know why we aren’t playing this year (in the Pro League). The coaches and HI decide our schedule. It works both ways; Pro League matches do help because you are playing against good teams. At the same time, there is a lot of travel which might give us less time to work on areas we need to improve upon,” she said.

Ninth ranked India’s Olympic group is a tricky one which includes top-ranked Netherlands and fourth ranked Germany. The top four make it to the quarterfinals.

“All teams are equal in the Olympics. They have all qualified for the competition, so we cannot take anyone lightly,” she said. IANS

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