Staying grounded amid chaos is something Rani Rampal has mastered over the years, on and off the field. This situational awareness makes the 25-year-old one of India’s greatest players. Last week, Rani added another feather to her cap by becoming the first female hockey player to be conferred Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in the country.
Hailing from a small town named Shahabad in Kurukshetra district of Haryana, Rani has battled odds and inspired many to become the face of Indian women’s hockey. In a chat with this newspaper, the captain, with 241 appearances and 118 goals, opens up on her journey, success mantra and staying mentally fit ahead of next year’s Olympics. Excerpts...
Padma Shri in January and Khel Ratna in August. What do these awards mean to you and your family?
This is a recognition for women’s hockey. When I told my father that I won this award, he didn’t understand its significance. My parents are not that educated. So they are not that aware of these awards. When I explained and told him I’m the first woman hockey player to receive it, he got emotional. He cried and said he is proud of me. It’s a great feeling.
It’s been a decade since you debuted for India. How have you changed over the years?
It’s been a tough and good journey. I have grown as a person and player. When I started, I didn’t believe one day I would lead the Indian team. But the passion for hockey drives me to achieve. I always tell myself that just because I’m from a poor background, it doesn’t mean I can’t work harder. I know I have to toil every day and never give up in life. Awards and medals motivate me to perform better than I have so far. I’m thankful to the coaches and players who’ve helped me in this journey.
Many young players have said you are a calming influence in the team as captain. Your thoughts?
I feel I should lead by example by working harder than others. Actions speak over words, that’s my mantra. Remaining grounded after being successful is something I’ve learnt. If I perform, others will get inspired and do well. I’m also learning from juniors. They have different talents and mindsets. There has not been a day when I thought ‘it’s enough, there’s nothing to learn.’ We learn from each other. I’m happy I got the chance to play with a talented bunch, in the past and present.
After being at SAI centre in Bengaluru for four months, you went home for one and a half months and now you are back in the camp. How have the past months been?
It was tough being away from family. But the girls supported each other during difficult times. At the SAI campus, we felt safe. I spent my days at home doing basic fitness drills as advised by Wayne Lombard (scientific advisor) to keep the body in shape. In 10 years, this was the longest I got to spend with my family. Now, my nephew and niece recognise me as a family member and not an outsider who visits once in a few months. Coming back to Bengaluru and undergoing quarantine was not exciting. But as sportspersons, we are mentally tough. We learn how to handle situations.
With momentum broken, how tough is it to manage physical and mental conditioning at a high level to peak at the Olympics?
It was initially heartbreaking to know about the postponement of the Olympics. But there are always takeaways. It is not easy to come back to the level we were in five months ago, but it is the same for every athlete. Now that we have resumed training, it will take time to get into rhythm.