The forward spoke in details about her early days and winning the Khel Ratna award.

Rani Rampal is the captain of the Indian hockey women’s team and a trailblazer for women in sport in India. She was recently conferred with the prestigious Khel Ratna award. Furthermore, Rampal became the first women hockey player to be bestowed upon with the country’s highest sporting honour.  

“It is a big honour for me but this is also a big recognition for women’s hockey. The Indian team has performed consistently well in the last few years but somewhere I also had the feeling that it’s very difficult to get the country’s highest sporting honour for a woman hockey player. This will encourage girls to play hockey and realize their dream of playing for the country,” Rani Rampal said in an interview with the Hindustan Times.

However, despite her achievements on and off the pitch, she is always faced with the same recurring question that many female athletes tend to field. The question being: When are you getting married? Rampal spoke of the pressures facing female athletes and the important changes that are starting to take place in that regard.

“I made my parents understand that my ultimate target is not marriage. What I can achieve now as a player, I can’t achieve it later. They understood. Once you represent India or get a job, it’s believed that it’s time for the athlete to tie the knot. Relatives continuously tell your parents and pressure builds up. Parents start believing in these things. But things have changed a lot over the years and parents have now started to understand.”

She also opened up on the different obstacles she had to overcome to play hockey for her nation. Despite all the challenges, Rampal never gave in and showed tremendous resilience to reach her goals. “I have gone through all kinds of struggles be it related to the game, financial condition, family, injuries. It is my privilege that I represent the country in hockey.”

Rampal recalls her initial years in the team, especially the time when the side had failed to qualify for the Olympics. She remembers being baffled by seeing the women who were completely devastated as continuing to play the game for more than four years at the highest level was considered a big ask then, a fact that she was unaware of.

She revealed, “I was very young, just 14. I did not know what the Olympics were. We had a good team. When we did not qualify, everyone was crying. I could not understand why. ‘We can win another tournament,’ I thought. But I never realized that the Olympics was so important and how difficult it will be for them to continue for another four years.”

However, four years later, Rampal realized the disappointment herself when the team had yet again failed to qualify for the Olympic Games.  

“I remember we cried like hell sitting outside our hotel rooms till 4 in morning. It seemed our life was over, careers finished. It was then I realized why my seniors were crying in 2008. I realized how difficult it is to push yourself for the next four years.”

Nonetheless, she learned a vital lesson from those failures and heeded the advice given to her by her seniors, eventually, guiding the side to the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the upcoming Tokyo Games.

“We had lost a crucial match to the USA in the 2008 qualifier. The opponents were physically stronger and one of the senior players, Suman Bala, told me that I should become like them. My focus was always on the next goal and I have reminded myself that whatever I have achieved it is because of my hard work.”

Lastly, Rampal admitted that maintaining peak fitness increasingly becomes an even more arduous task as the years go by. Having said that, the help from the modern methods of recovery and the ever-developing sports science has provided a huge boost to athletes that have the required discipline to stay in good shape.  

“As years pass on, doubts start coming in. The recovery of the body gets slower. You ask yourself whether you will be able to push yourself or not. But now the team gets so much support—from sports science to rehab and recovery, you are being taken care of—so if you are mentally strong then that gives you the confidence that you can manage.”

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