'My ultimate target is not marriage': Khel Ratna Rani Rampal - EXCLUSIVE

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It is a question Rani Rampal has dodged with the same nimbleness that she puts on show on Astroturf: When will you get married?

The last time it came her way two years ago, with the Tokyo Olympics qualifiers not far away, Rampal patiently convinced her family she was not ready. Her priority as India’s hockey captain was to see the Indian team qualify for the Tokyo Games.

“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,” Rampal said.

In an international career spanning 11 years and counting, the India captain has seen many of her teammates move away from the game at the peak of their careers to get married. “Once you represent India or get a job, it’s believed that it’s time for the athlete to tie the knot,” she said. “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.”

Rampal feels fortunate her parents respected her choices in life. She comes from a family that used to struggle to make ends meet—her father was a cart puller in Shahabad Markanda in Haryana—but nothing stopped the fierce Rampal from chasing her hockey dreams.

“I have gone through all kinds of struggles be it related to the game, financial condition, family, injuries,” she said. “It is my privilege that I represent the country in hockey.

When she recently became the first woman hockey player to be awarded the nation’s highest sporting honour—Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna—it was a recognition of her grit and power.

“It is a big honour for me but this is also a big recognition for women’s hockey,” she said. “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.”

Rampal has seen days when even playing for four years was considered a tall task for women hockey players. She remembers her first year in the senior team in 2008, before the Olympic qualifier in Russia, and how the women cried after not being able to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

“I was very young, just 14. I did not know what the Olympics were,” she said. “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.”

Four years later, Rampal finally understood. It was again the Olympic qualifiers and the Indian women’s team again failed to make the cut.

“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.”

But the setback just made Rampal stronger. Leading the Indian team to the Olympics became a fiery goal. The women’s team eventually made the cut for the 2016 Rio Games, and under Rampal’s captaincy for Tokyo.

“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.”

Rampal took the advice seriously.

“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,” she said.

Rampal admits that maintaining her physicality on the pitch is tough.

“As years pass on, doubts start coming in,” she said. “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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