Nine years before Mary Kom won her fourth world championship after giving birth to twins, there was Pritam Rani Siwach, a hockey legend lying inside the maternity ward of a government hospital in Sonepat, Haryana, contemplating whether she would ever play another match after the birth of her son.
She had reason to worry. In India, watching women athletes compete at the highest level after delivering a child, was generally unheard of.
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Pritam was a dynamic centre forward who led the Indian women’s hockey team to their first Asian Games final in 16 years, just a year before, and subsequently became the first woman hockey player to win the prestigious Arjuna Award.
The pain and anxiety following the birth of her son had left in her bout of self-doubt, but she took charge of the situation, began training with bricks in her family home backyard and finally made it for the Inter-Railways tournament in the following year (2000).
After a successful run in the tournament and scoring nine goals in the National Games that year, she was once picked for the Indian team. Not only did she make a comeback, but her speed, reflexes and accuracy also remained intact, playing for the Railways and the national team.
Three years after the birth of her first son, she was part of the team that won the historic gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England.
For Pritam, the demands of motherhood were just another obstacle she had to overcome in her pursuit of success on the hockey field.
Two years later, after winning the Commonwealth Gold, she opened the Pritam Rani Hockey Academy in Sonipat for young girls who wanted to follow in her footsteps.
The daughter of a small farmer from Gurugram’s Jharsa village, she had to overcome not just financial limitations, but also societal norms steeped in toxic patriarchy and the petty politics of Indian sports administration, to make it in a sport she adored.
Her talent was never in question. In her first-ever national-level tournament at the age of 14, she was adjudicated as the Player of the Tournament. Her career just took off from there.
Despite retiring after the Commonwealth Games and giving birth to another child, there was a burning desire to come back once again. She competed at the 2006 nationals, playing in front of her children and setting a fantastic example.
While the tournament didn’t go as planned, the very fact that she could play at a high level after giving birth to two children and not playing competitively for four years, showed that she still had it.
In 2008, she was once again recalled to the team for the Olympic qualifiers to bring an “additional wealth of experience.” Although the team did not qualify for the tournament, Pritam went back to running her academy which today produces players for the national team.
“The current lot is blessed, Pritam feels, in terms of the facilities they get. But it’s the grass-roots academies and domestic players that are crying for attention. Barring the time they won the 2002 Commonwealth Games gold, (which translated into the Bollywood blockbuster Chak De! India years later) Pritam and her peers never really got the kind of attention and importance that today’s stars do,” writes Suprita Das, a media professional and author, for Sahapedia.
Through her academy, the 45-year-old is playing her own role in changing that dynamic. Despite not getting the attention the likes of Mary Kom got, Pritam is leaving behind a remarkable legacy, giving young girls the hope that they too can represent India one day.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)