Savita Punia and women’s hockey deserve better days

Savita Punia being consoled by her teammate (Image: Hockey India)

India had just lost the all-important Olympic qualifier to Japan and skipper Savita Punia was distraught. When we spoke late into the night, it was pretty much evident that Savita had been crying. Sport at times is cruel. Despite her best efforts, which included a fantastic match against Germany, Savita had failed to lead her team to Paris.

“There is no point continuing,” she said over the phone. “Main aur khelna nahi chahti [I don’t wish to play any more].”That she was emotional was evident. Moreover, she blamed it all on herself as most good leaders tend to do. “Mujhe rok na chahiye tha [I should have stopped it],” she lamented. And then, there was a pause. “Khel ke aur kya hoga sir [Playing more, what will happen]?”

We were hundreds of miles apart and on the phone, but my thoughts went back to the India-Great Britain bronze medal play-off in Tokyo. I had met Savita soon after the match was over. India had lost 3-4 and it was the biggest heartbreak in Japan. After having beaten Australia, the team had left a huge mark on the Olympics. And Savita with 7 penalty-corner saves in the quarterfinal was the star. Life had clearly come full circle for her. From the highs of Tokyo to the despondency of Ranchi, Savita has seen it all. But then, that’s how sport is. It hurts you really badly at times. Pushes you to the brink, and only the strong survive.

Savita went back home to her family the day after. Her biggest support system and strength. If you see her WhatsApp display picture, it has a very clear message – “Family is the most important thing in the world.” And hence, it was natural she would go home before doing anything drastic.

“My father asked me to think if I wanted to leave the game this way,” she said last night. “With his blessings, I have started practising again from today.” Her voice was tinged with relief and joy. “For days after the loss, I just couldn’t hold the stick. I would do breathing exercises, and even lied to my closest friends who asked me if I had started practising. It was hard. You would wake up and think we aren’t there in Paris, when we should have been there. We had worked the hardest.”

But then, not everything goes to plan in sport. Even the great Usain Bolt had to limp off in his last race. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli did not win the World Cup on home soil and Rafael Nadal had to withdraw yet again from the Australian Open. Not everyone is Lionel Messi. A successful last dance is a very rare. But that doesn’t mean you will not try. Savita is a great of her sport and has inspired thousands to play hockey. To leave after a failed Olympic campaign isn’t the way to call it quits after an illustrious career. Rather, with the Pro League round the corner and the World Cup some months away, she needs to start afresh. For herself and for India.

“Yes I have started to practice like I said to you,” she said, voice full of emotion. “This is where I belong and I don’t want to go like this. I think I can still give something to my country and to my team.”

Having seen Sachin Tendulkar recover after the 2007 World Cup disaster and seen Messi pick himself up after the 2018 campaign, one can hope that Savita too will have her moment. Sport will give her another opportunity. Now it is on her to grasp it. After every failure comes success, and after every night, the sun rises again. For Savita, Rio was followed by Tokyo, and needless to say, Ranchi will also have something better to look forward to in the future. Savita deserves better, and so does India.

“I will try my best, sir,” she told me. “I hope I can do it.” Having known her well, I tend to agree with her.

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