'There were days when we didn't know where the next meal will come from,' Khel Ratna Rani Rampal on her journey
'I won't rest till I win an Olympic medal. Even after all these years, what keeps me going is the honour of wearing the India jersey. That joy is incomparable,' Rani said on being conferred with the Khel Ratna award.
New Delhi: It is hard to dissociate India's women's hockey captain from the tired trope of Haryana's gender ratio. Sure, there are more prisms and perspectives to look at Rani Rampal from than the oft-quoted skewed sex ratio of the state she comes from, but somehow, Haryana's abysmal record has found a way to foretell her remarkable rise. Call it destiny, if you must.
A year after Rampal's India debut in 2009, wrestler Geeta Phogat, also hailing from Haryana, ushered a revolution of sorts by winning a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. A decade later, Vinesh Phogat, Geeta's cousin, is being accorded the Khel Ratna, country's highest sporting honour. It is only fitting that Rani is getting the same honour alongside Vinesh, as is table-tennis star Manika Batra who hails from the national capital that, incidentally, recorded the fourth-worst sex ratio in the country in 2011. Again, call it destiny, if you must.
Rani, like most self-aware athletes, understands the magnitude of her off-the-turf achievements. The fact that three of this year's five Khel Ratnas happen to be women is not lost on her either. Yet, she picks her words carefully, trading obvious euphoria for deep sincerity. That is when it hits home: 879/1000 could be, at best, a disturbing statistic for us, but for those who are this stat, these numbers are, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
"Yes, three women getting India's top sports honour is a remarkable achievement for the women of this country. I am privileged and honoured to get this award with two fine women athletes. Even at Rio Olympics, all the medals were won by women athletes, so it is nice to see the acknowledgement coming," she told Firstpost from Bengaluru.
"My parents have suffered and endured a lot," she continued. "They supported me when people said a lot of things about a girl choosing to play an outdoor sport. I can't thank them enough, ever."
There's a tinge of reverie and emotion when Rani talks of her parents, particularly her father. One could sense her mind racing back to the days when Rampal, her father, carried bricks at construction sites on his pony, aptly named 'Hero'. Money was hard to come by, and Rani's interest in sports meant that brickbats flew thick and fast, but Rampal Sr. took everything in his stride and ploughed on tirelessly and silently.
"There were days when we didn't know when our next meal will come from. We had absolutely no money. But my parents never asked me to quit sports," she remembered.
Hockey gave her a purpose and an escape. She would break free from the depressing drudgeries of her young life and eventually form a real identity on the artificial turf. Hailing from Shahbad helped, as it meant she could train at the famed Shahbad Hockey Academy under the watchful eyes of Baldev Singh, a Dronacharya Awardee and an old-fashioned disciplinarian. Rani was seven when she read about the Indian women's hockey team's historic gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. At 14, she was playing for India.
"Playing for India was a dream come true, but it is not my journey alone. My parents have sacrificed a lot for me, and it is as much their journey as mine," she said.
A lot of water has flown since those dour days of penury and hunger. The family that never lost hope in sport was finally loved back by the sport. As Rani soared, the finances took care of themselves.
The dung-infested alley leading to their erstwhile household, the dank, unplastered walls of the living room that struggled to accommodate Rani's trophies, the patch-worked flooring, the haystack-grazing 'Hero', the bedsheet doubling up as curtains - all of which that this correspondent had an unforgettable experience of observing first-hand some years back - are not part of Rani's present anymore, but go a long way in adding credence and cadence to her fairytale. She has built a new house, given a new life to her parents, excelled at the sport, and made sure that her father does not have to work anymore. Rani looks back at those days with wistful satisfaction.
"Of course, I can never forget that time. One should never forget where one comes from. Even today, I think of that time, and I guess what kept me going was a single-minded belief that I have to get my family out of this rut. When I came to know that I have won this year's Khel Ratna, I think all those memories started coming back a bit. I couldn't control my emotions and broke down on the call with my father who thought I was weeping because I had missed the cut.
"It has taken a lot of hard work from my parents to help me reach where I am. As I grew up, I wanted to make sure that my family eats well, dresses well, and has a comfortable life. I am glad I have been able to do that. You can say that I am quite satisfied on that front."
On sporting front, though, Rani is far from done. Still only 25, her best years may well be ahead of her, and among her immediate goals is a podium finish at now-deferred Tokyo Olympics.
The coronavirus pandemic has scuppered the planning to an extent, but Rani is confident of getting back in the groove sooner than later.
"I won't rest till I win an Olympic medal. Even after all these years, what keeps me going is the honour of wearing the India jersey. That joy is incomparable."
For the last time, the conversation veered towards her decade-long ride in India colours. Did she ever foresee such a career with 100-plus goals, including sending India to two successive Olympics off her own stick? "Never," she says, before allowing a moment of reflection.
"I didn't think I would achieve all this...all these awards, the Arjuna, Padma Shri and now Khel Ratna, they still feel unreal. But, I am a firm believer in training. If you train well, plan well, and recover well, you can overcome any challenge in sports," she said. Call it anything, but providence.
Hardik Singh, who sustained a hamstring injury and missed the Wales match, is uncertain for the remainder of the Hockey World Cup
While India may not finish last even if they lose to Japan on Thursday, the loss will take the hosts to their worst placing ever, which will be between 13 and 16.
Hockey World Cup 2023: Belgium and Australia secure Semi-final berths but not taking anything for granted
Australia beat Spain 4-3 in the quarter-finals, whereas Belgium fended off a spirited challenge from New Zealand 2-0.