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Incredible Stories of 8 Indian Girls Who’ve Just Created History at Tokyo Olympics

Rani Rampal, Savita Punia, Gurjit Kaur, Lalremsiami, Vandana Katariya, Salima Tete, Deep Grace Ekka and Sushila Chanu — meet eight hockey queens who stormed into a historic semi-final at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Rani Rampal-led Indian women’s hockey team have made it to the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics 2021. They have created history at the international sporting event in what will be just their third appearance at the Olympics.

Here are eight inspiring stories of girls from the Indian hockey squad who showed immense grit and determination to bounce back after three consecutive defeats at Tokyo Olympics.

1. Rani Rampal

From practicing with broken hockey sticks to becoming the youngest player in the national women’s hockey team, the Indian skipper has come a long way.

Rani Rampal’s mother worked as a domestic help, her father was a cart-puller who earned around Rs 80 a day. Inspired by the players she would see at a nearby hockey academy, she too decided to take up the sport. However, her father could not afford to buy her a hockey stick, so she practiced with a broken one.

In an exclusive interview with The Better India, she said, “I grew up in a place where young women and girls were restricted to the four walls of their home. So, when I expressed my wish to play hockey, neither my parents nor my relatives supported me. My parents come from a humble background and weren’t very educated. They did not think sports could be a career path, not for girls at least. Besides, my relatives would often tell my father, ‘What will she do playing hockey? She will run around the field wearing a short skirt and bring a bad name to your family’.”

The same people now pat her back and congratulate her when she is home.

2. Deep Grace Ekka

The Indian side’s mainstay in defence, Deep Grace Ekka hails from the Lulkidhi village from Sundargarh district of Odisha.

For Deep, hockey is a family affair — her father, uncle and elder brother were notable local players.

Yet, when she picked up the hockey stick as a young girl, her family was criticised severely by neighbours and villagers for allowing a ‘girl’ to play hockey instead of learning household chores.

“When I played they would say, she doesn’t even work and still ladko wala game khelti hai (plays men’s sport). But I did not pay any heed to them and continued to play,” the veteran defender told the Olympics Channel.

At just 16, Deep played in her first senior nationals in Sonepat. Soon after, she was called up for the India Junior team. A few years later, she helped India bag the bronze medal in the Junior World Cup as well as the 2014 Asian Games.

3. Sushila Chanu

The 29-year-old halfback from Imphal, Manipur, Sushila Chanu is one of the most experienced players in the team.

This daughter of a driver and homemaker began playing the sport at the age of 11 after much encouragement from her uncle, who also got her enrolled at the Posterior Hockey Academy in Manipur in 2002.

However, she nearly gave it all up after she wasn’t picked for the state.

“I didn’t think it would go too far, so I almost quit. But senior players urged me to get back,” she told Hindustan Times. The rest, as they say, is history.

A soft-spoken individual, Chanu has worked as a ticket collector in the Central Railways since 2010, a position she obtained through the sports quota.

4. Vandana Katariya

When Vandana Katariya was a little girl, she would often be told that her love for hockey was ‘unbecoming of a girl’.

So, she would practice her moves with tree branches in a hidden spot, far away from the disapproving eyes of elders in Uttarakhand’s Roshnabad village, Times of India reported.

But when every one pushed her to drop the sport, little Vandana found a defender in her father Nahar Singh Kataria, who had himself been a wrestler.

Three months before Tokyo Olympics, Vandana’s father passed away and she couldn’t make it home due to training. Despite her many hardships, on 31 July 2021, she became the first Indian woman to score a hat-trick at the Olympics.

5. Gurjit Kaur

Drag flicker Gurjit Kaur was born in a farmer’s family in Miadi Kalan in Amritsar. She and her sister spent most of years in her village, where she didn’t know even know what hockey was, let alone playing the sport.

It was only when she moved to a boarding school 70 km away that she was first introduced to hockey. Gurjit knew nothing about the game, so she would spend the whole day watching the other girls play. This is what made her want to excel at the game.

Hockey soon became her passion.

In the Olympics quarter-final against World No 4, it was Gurjit who rose to the occasion and converted India’s lone penalty corner in the 22nd minute to surprise the confident Australians.

“Years of hard work have paid off,” a beaming Gurjit told the media after the match.

6. Savita Punia

Apart from Gurjit’s goal, it was goalkeeper Savita Punia’s heroics that helped India stun Australia 1-0 to reach their first-ever Olympics semi-finals.

As a young girl, Savita used to travel 30 km six times every week from her village (Jodhkan) to Maharaja Agrasain Girls Senior Secondary School in Sirsa to hone her hockey skills. This school was the only place around her village that had hockey coaches as well as training infrastructure.

Interestingly, before Savita, no one in her family had ever taken up any sport as a career. It was her grandfather, late Ranjeet Punia, who encouraged her to play the sport and not give up, even when the going got tough.

7. Lalremsiami

Barely out of her teens, this fiercely determined girl from Mizoram has already made a mark, on and off the field.

“Selection in India’s Olympic team was my late father’s dream,” said 21-year-old Lalremsiami, who created history by becoming the first Indian woman to be handed the the FIH Rising Star Award.

Despite struggling to support his family via farming, Lalremsiami’s father was her biggest support, constantly encouraging her to pursue her hockey dreams, which she did, no matter what hurdles came her way.

In fact, when Lalremsiami joined the team, she could barely speak English or Hindi. She had to initially communicate with her teammates with hand gestures, before picking up both languages with help from her teammates and self-help books.

8. Salima Tete

Salima Tete hails from Badkichapar village in Jharkand’s Simdega, one of the worst Naxalism-affected districts in the state.

It was in a dusty ground in this village that a young Salima, a farmer’s daughter, took her first steps in hockey. Growing up on subsidised rice grains, she would use wooden sticks since the family was unable to afford proper hockey blades.

“Everyone in our village plays hockey, even though we have no facilities. Hockey gives us a purpose. But I’m the first player from my village to represent India at an international level,” 19-year-old Salima told LiveMint.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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