Rani Rampal, captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, has a singular goal when she goes on-field — to win for the country. She talks of this and more
Photograph: Chethan Shivakumar/BCCL
As I prepare myself to speak to her, I can’t help but wonder at the superstar that Rani Rampal is! The 25-year-old captain of the Indian women’s hockey team is not just grounded, she is also endearingly humble. She signs off on our interview by thanking the readers who will take the time out to read it, adding, “I wish you all the best and God bless.”
Hockey player Rampal’s story can motivate an entire generation. Hailing from the small town of Shahabad in the Kurukshetra district of Haryana, she has turned all the odds in her favour to become the face of Indian women’s hockey. Her father worked as a handcart puller, and, from that background, she rose to train in field hockey, starting at the age of six, and consistently proving herself of being deserving of all the positions she got. She has played 212 international matches and scored 134 goals, and is now looking forward to leading the team at the Tokyo Olympics this year. The Padma Shri and Khel Ratna awardee knows the game takes her all, and she willingly gives it. Over to the super athlete.
1. “Every honour is a big honour, but, as it was the World Games Athlete of the Year, it’s quite special because no hockey player has received it before!” – Rani Rampal
2. “Any athlete and team would dream of representing their country in the Olympics and winning medals!” – Rani Rampal
3. “Whenever a sport grows, many have their hand in that happening” – Rani Rampal
4. “To bring about change in anything, you have to train for it The more you train, the more it becomes habitual for you” – Rani Rampal
5. “It was difficult to even think of playing hockey with no means to have two square meals a day, but, in life, if you have passion, you will be able to face and fight anything” – Rani Rampal
6. “Start believing in yourself, that you can do something in life, and bring pride to the country Until girls believe in themselves, no one else is going to believe in them” – Rani Rampal
“Every honour is a big honour, but, as it was the World Games Athlete of the Year, it’s quite special because no hockey player has received it before!” – Rani Rampal
Last year, you became the first-ever hockey player worldwide to win the prestigious World Games Athlete of the Year honour. How does it feel?
Every honour is a big honour, but, as it was the World Games Athlete of the Year, it’s quite special because no hockey player has received it before! Also, being a woman hockey player, if it’s bestowed upon you, you feel like the world is recognising women’s hockey. It makes me feel great as it helps women’s hockey create an identity of its own in the sports world. I take this opportunity to thank all those who voted for me; they are the ones who got me the award. I felt the love people have for hockey as the votes poured in.
“Any athlete and team would dream of representing their country in the Olympics and winning medals!” – Rani Rampal
Everyone’s eyes are now on the Olympics. What are you looking forward to this year, for you and your team?
Any athlete and team would dream of representing their country in the Olympics and winning medals! The team has been working hard for quite some time, and we have a great staff that looks after the team. During the lockdown, we lived together and spent time with each other. After almost a year of not playing, we have now started to get some exposure, and we need to make the most of it. Hockey India and the Ministry of Sports see us as capable enough to be able to do something in the Olympics, and we are happy that we are on the right track.
The team has received the ticket, so to say, for the Olympics under your leadership. What changes did you bring in to foster new enthusiasm and motivation?
I like to believe that I lead by example. I don’t believe in talking a lot, I want to set a good example every single time I am out in the field. There are many mature players in our team, so, whenever we are on the field, everyone is a captain in their own way, everyone has a role to play, everyone has a responsibility to fulfil towards the team. Our players understand this responsibility. Ultimately, we all know we are representing the flag, we play for respect to that flag. Sometimes, things do go awry, we lose or do not perform our best, then I also have the responsibility to motivate the team, especially to take the youngsters forward with us as they do not have as much experience.
You have played over 200 matches for the country; you have seen quite a lot of changes, you are a changemaker yourself…
Whenever a sport grows, many have their hand in that happening. Women’s hockey has improved itself significantly in the last few years, in every aspect. It is a great feeling! Individually, when you have been given such a responsibility, you should do it justice. Overall, our team has played a big role in this as have all the staff that is working for us, all the exposure that we have gotten over the years; these are things that really help bringing a change.
“Whenever a sport grows, many have their hand in that happening.” – Rani Rampal
What is your strategy when you face some of the toughest teams across championships?
Our coaches enable us by creating strategies. For example, to prepare against our opponents in the Olympics, we analyse their past matches, the structure, and we train accordingly, knowing how to be able to play against them. We also watch videos to train, and the coaches lead us on how a particular opponent plays, and discuss with us on how to play against them. Ultimately, they are the ones who plan the strategy. If a particular practice does not work out, we discuss what we need to change in it.
Are those changes implemented properly?
Yes, they are. To bring about change in anything, you have to train for it. The more you train, the more it becomes habitual for you. Saying ‘we have to do it, we have to do it,’ is not how it works. Ultimately, we have to do it on the field based on our training.
“To bring about change in anything, you have to train for it. The more you train, the more it becomes habitual for you.” – Rani Rampal
Personally, when you are down and need to be motivated, where do you turn?
It does happen; after all, I am human too, but I know I can confide in my teammates, who are my close friends. I also rely a lot on our staff to resolve issues that I might be facing. I feel blessed to be around such supportive people, but I also know that, often,
I simply need some time alone to get out of whatever’s on my mind. And I allow myself such time. I also fall back on chanting or recitation to bring me out of my problems.
As the captain, you understand why someone’s game is not its best on a particular day. How do you motivate them?
On any given day, any team member, including me, can slip in her performance for many reasons. Every athlete tries their best to do the best for the team. When a player is unable to do it, I have to be sensitive, and figure out how to boost her confidence. I remind her of all the positives, of the winning moves she has had in past matches, and of how she has it in her to make them in the present. The player automatically starts feeling, ‘Yes, I have done it and I have these qualities, I can do it now too!’ She starts being more focused. Most importantly, I know I have to always speak positively because anybody can be going through this ‘down period’.
“It was difficult to even think of playing hockey with no means to have two square meals a day, but, in life, if you have passion, you will be able to face and fight anything.” – Rani Rampal
What kinds of challenges have you faced to become the sportsperson you are today? How did you overcome these challenges?
There have been many challenges so far. I come from Haryana, and the first challenge was being in sports while being a girl. Then there was the challenge of coming from an economically-disadvantaged family; it was difficult to even think of playing hockey with no means to have two square meals a day. Later, when I did manage to get playing, we did not have the correct equipment, the shoes, sticks, etc. Post that, even on the national team, there’s the challenge of injuries, ones that you recover from and other new ones that are forever lurking around the corner. One of the worst challenges to handle mentally is the one of losing out on a medal; a player always goes onto the field hoping to win a medal.
Those problems you spoke about when you started, being a girl and facing financial challenges, not knowing where you will find the money for training, how did you overcome those?
It was difficult, very difficult, but, in life, if you have passion, you will be able to face and fight anything. Looking back, I think that’s what I did. I knew we were not well off, and I had no other option. If I were to see this passion through, I would have to put in the hard work. Saying it now seems so easy, but it wasn’t as easy at the time, because you can do it for a day, a month, even a year, but it’s not easy to overcome hurdles for many years. My passion for the game of hockey helped me do it, I wanted to play at any cost, I wanted to do something in my life and change my circumstances.
If you could implement one change in women’s hockey, what would it be?
I think the Olympics medal—I hope we bring it home!—will change everything. The one change I would want to bring about is that more women and girls in our country could and would play hockey, it is our national sport. Hockey doesn’t just teach us about the sport; playing a team sport gives us many life lessons. I want more girls to represent the country and carry on the legacy.
“Start believing in yourself, that you can do something in life, and bring pride to the country. Until girls believe in themselves, no one else is going to believe in them.” – Rani Rampal
What is your message to children who want to become hockey players or make a life in sports?
Start believing in yourself, that you can do something in life, and bring pride to the country. Until girls believe in themselves, no one else is going to believe in them. Never should they think that coming from a poorer background automatically means they can’t do anything; if there is passion, anyone can do anything in life. So, there should be a goal and, for that goal, have faith in yourself to do it, no matter what kind of hard work it takes.
Which sportspersons do you look up to?
I follow Mary Kom very closely, because she is an icon, a six-time world champion, a mother of three, and yet she has the same hunger to learn!
How do you like to unwind?
I don’t get much free time, but I love listening to music. I enjoy Punjabi music, and old Bollywood melodies, also music from the ’80s and ’90s. Other than that, I like to spend time with my family whenever I have the time to be with them.