They may not be a household name but the Indian women hockey squad at the Tokyo Olympics has taken a giant step to correct that anomaly. They have made sure that the current and the upcoming generation of Indian sports lovers will fondly remember how the 16 members overcame adversities - both on and off the field - to create history by reaching the semifinals for the first time in their Olympic history after beating powerhouse Australia.
Here’s a brief profile of The Magnificent 16
Rani Rampal - Forward and captain
She was just 14 when Rani made her international debut. She turned 26 last December and is the captain of India women hockey team. These two lines are enough to sum up her prodigious talent. Daughter of a cart-puller. She began playing hockey from the age of six with a broken stick. Despite her poverty-stricken childhood, Rani remained focus and convinced her parents to let her play hockey. Today, she’s a junior world cup bronze medallist, two-time Asian Games medallist and been an integral part of the Indian team which, for the first time in history, qualified for successive Olympics.
Savita Punia - Goalkeeper and vice-captain
Hailing from the Sirsa district of Haryana, it was Savita’s grandfather who motivated her to take up hockey. She joined Sports Authority of India academy at Hisar and initially, wasn’t too serious about making a career out of hockey. Everything changed when her father spent a significant amount on purchasing a new kit. Today she’s hailed as the Wall of India clocking over 200 international appearances that included Asian Game medals (2014, 2018) and Asia Cup gold in 2017.
Sushila Chanu - Midfielder
Sushila once dreamt of representing India at least once in her lifetime. Today, she has over 150 international caps, captained India at an Olympics (Rio 2016), a former junior world cup medal winner and an Asian Games medallist (2014 Incheon). The 29-year-old struggled with a major knee injury that saw her missing major events in 2018 including the world cup, Asian Games, Champions Trophy that left her with self-doubts during rehabilitation. However, she made an impressive return and played an important role in keeping Australia at bay at the Tokyo Olympics quarterfinals.
Vandana Katariya - Forward
At the junior world cup in 2013, Vandana scored five goals as India won a bronze. She was the top-scorer at the event. Last week, as India faced South Africa the team needed to win to keep chances of making cut for quarterfinals alive. Vandana stepped up with a hat-trick becoming the first ever India women player to do so at an Olympic. Her father, Nahar Singh, ignored the the societal pressure to back Vandana’s dream. He passed away three months ago with the 29-year-old India forward unable to be at his last rites.
Nikki Pradhan - Defender
When she was selected in the India squad for Tokyo Games, Nikki became the first ever player from Jharkhand to represent the country at the Olympics. The 27-year-old has won over 100 caps for India and growing up, she overcame financial hurdles and her fear of hockey stick that she was convinced will break her legs one day to keep her passion and dream alive. The defender hails from Hesal which is a Naxal stronghold.
Deep Grace Ekka - Defender
Inspired by her older brother Dinesh, a former India goalkeeper, Deep also wanted to be a goalie after starting playing when she turned 12. However, her brother and uncle instead advised her to become a defender. Her family was chided for allowing a girl to play hockey instead of involving her in household chores. Eventually, she graduated to be selected for the national team and the 27-year-old is a two-time Asian Games medallist and an Asian Cup winner.
Neha Goyal - Midfielder
Neha worked with her mother Savitri and sisters at a cycle factory. Her alcoholic father would abuse her mother who in turn enrolled Neha into a hockey academy to keep her away from the trauma. Her talent took her places - first in the India squad for the 2011 junior world cup when she was just 14. Later that year, she was adjudged player of the tournament at the U-21 Four-Nations Lal Bahadur Shastri women’s hockey tournament. She was part of the team that won silver at the 2018 Asian Games.
Salima Tete - Midfielder
Tete hails from Badkichapar village in Simdega, one of the worst Maoist affected districts in Jharkhand. The 19-year-old, known for her tenacious defending on the field, captained the Indian team that clinched the silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. She is touted to be the next big thing in Indian hockey. Her family back home has been unable to watch her play as the sole TV set in the village has been out of order for years and the internet connectivity is poor. Her father, who is a farmer, himself played hockey and hence encouraged his daughter to take up the sport. In the absence of proper hockey blades, Tete would use wooden sticks to practice.
Navneet Kaur - Forward
One of the most consistent forwards in the Indian team, Kaur, like Rani, hails from Shahabad Markanda in Haryana. The 25-year-old forward suffered a setback in May when she contracted COVID-19. She is a junior world cup medal winner and a 2018 Asian Games silver medallist. It was Navneet who scored a late winner for India in the quarterfinals against Australia sealing a famous win at Tokyo Olympics.
Udita Duhan - Defender
Born in Hisar in Haryana, the 23-year-old made her senior team debut during the Indian team’s tour of New Zealand in 2017. The defender has played 32 matches for the Indian team. Although she picked up sports at an early age, the forward started playing hockey only six years ago. Initially she played handball, following in the footsteps of her father.
Nisha Warsi - Midfielder
The 26-year-old midfielder from Sonepat made her international debut against Uruguay in the 2019 FIH Women’s Series Finals in Hiroshima. Her father, who works as a tailor in a retail store, supported her unconditionally when she decided to take up hockey. Although the family wasn’t flourishing financially, Nisha’s father somehow managed to keep aside some money that would help her travel for tournaments.
Lalremsiami - Forward
One of the youngest players in the team, Lalremsiami was born and brought up in Kolasib in Mizoram. The 21-year-old is the first female player from her state to compete at the Olympics. ‘Siami’ as she is fondly called by her teammates, helped India secure a historic silver medal at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
Hailing from a state where hockey is not that popular, there weren’t many supporters in the family when she decided to take up the sport. However, after a lot of convincing, she finally got the go-ahead. When Lalremsiami joined the team, she struggled with the language as she could barely speak English or Hindi. She had to initially communicate with her teammates through hand gestures.
Lalremsiami headed to the Olympics on the back of a personal tragedy. She lost her father just a day before India’s semifinal match against Chile in FIH Series Finals last year in Hiroshima, Japan. Instead of returning home, the young striker braved personal tragedy and decided to stay back with the team.
Monika Malik - Midfielder
The 27-year-old creative midfielder from Haryana is the backbone of the team, churning out inspiring performances in several major tournaments. She plays an important job of linking the play from defence to attack, and has featured over 150 times for the national team.
She played a key role in India’s campaign in the FIH Olympic Qualifiers in Bhubaneswar where the team clinched the berth for Tokyo after beating USA 6-5 in goal aggregate.
Sharmila Devi - Forward
Sharmila made her senior team debut at the Olympics test event in 2019. The 19-year-old forward featured in just nine games ahead of the Tokyo Games Sharmila, including the Olympic Qualifiers.
Gurjit Kaur - Defender
A vital cog in the team, she plays the dual role of a defender and is also the designated drag-flicker. Her goals have contributed to big victories for the team in recent years, biggest being this morning’s strike against Australia. Born in Miadi Kalan in Amritsar to a farmer’s family, Kaur and her sister studied at a private school and knew nothing about hockey till they shifted to a boarding school. Kaur would watch other girls play hockey all day and that is how her passion for the sport stemmed.
Navjot Kaur - Midfielder
The Kurukshetra born attacking midfielder made her international debut in 2012 in a series against New Zealand in Napier at the back of some impressive work at the Junior Asia Cup and International U-21 tournament in the Netherlands. Since then she has been part of the team’s important victories. The 26-year-old, like several of her teammates, comes from a humble background. Her father is a mechanic while her mother is a home-maker.
With PTI Inputs