Savita Punia is known as the great wall of the Indian Hockey team. She earned this title after her phenomenal performance in the Summer Olympics 2020. Savita Punia had an exclusive conversation with The Daily Guardian Review. Excerpts:
Q. From battling eve-teasers in the bus to guarding India’s goal-post at the Tokyo Olympics to climbing up to the best 6th position in FIH World Rankings. How does it feel and what sweat and blood does it take?
A. It took so long, it has been a long journey with a lot of hard work, with a lot of people’s support; including my family, coaches, and teammates. A lot of hard work of my own. It took a bit to understand how much it matters to me, but now that I have understood hockey is the thing that matters the most. I am ready to do more hard work, I just have to make my parents proud. At that time I understood how important a goalkeeper’s role is. Of course, it is a proud moment, but when you have a grid that much, it feels better, “I have worked this much and it has paid off”. For me the respect that my parents have for me matters the most, a child wants nothing more than that; that is a reason for your parent’s happiness, and for me, that is the biggest achievement.
Q. What does individual recognition mean to you?
A. For me, the biggest recognition is what my team gives me, that they should call me proudly that I am their goalkeeper, if she plays then we have different confidence. I never liked or needed the limelight, but inside the helmet, I felt the most confident because I was camera-shy. But when you perform well it gives you more confidence and motivation. It has been a long journey full of ups and downs, injuries, and sacrifices but I love playing hockey. The more experience a goalkeeper has, the more they enjoy it confidently. Maybe my coach decided to proceed to be best, at that time I didn’t like the decision much though but it has given me a different identity. The goalkeeper has a really big role to play, I learned that from my senior goalkeepers. I never thought that I would be given this much fame and limelight. The more training and experience a goalkeeper has the more fun it is, “ Utna hi maza aata hai”.
Q. What preparations are being done for World Cup?
A. I think we are training in the right direction, both individually and as a team, our coach is the biggest reason behind it. Each training session is very hard and in the right way, it makes us fulfil, and that builds confidence, makes us ready for the tournament more. We’ll give our best and go match by match.
Q. You shy away from the spotlight. But when Rani Rampal was in rehabilitation, did this add more responsibility as a senior player?
A. I think yes, I think this responsibility was there from the very start. Rani and I have been very close and supported each other. Her comeback is a very good thing, we know a senior player’s presence is very important, and they give a lot of energy to the young player. When you are a senior player, you have more responsibilities. If I do my work nicely as an individual player directly that automatically helps a team.
Q. You are now 31. Not many women hockey players in the country play over the age of 30. What motivates you to continue?
A. First of all my family, because of them, I’m here. Maybe I could be an example for the people in the future, because where hockey is now today, and for what I have worked so hard and I’m still fit so there is a no reason to quit. I question myself often, and the answer is always that if I can perform more, then I should play. My team and coaching staff are supportive. Even after marriage why cannot I play? Why this wrong mindset? I would play after the marriage too, if my family can be supportive so can my in-laws too, I’m sure I would be able to make them proud too. Nobody wants to quit, but when you have earned respect by playing and you know you can play more than you should not stop, age does not matter.
Q. You were offered a coaching role with the Sports Authority of India. Is coaching your next calling?
A. My main focus is on playing, will do coaching when the time comes. The things that I know of, I would be very happy to pass that to the new players.
Q. India lost the bronze medal match at FIH Junior Women’s World Cup. Was it sheer bad luck or did you see some loopholes.
A. I think it was bad luck, the team was on the right track and training in the right direction. We were more confident than the team itself because they were playing hockey very well. I think you can always learn from defeat; it gave us the lessons for the next matches. Every player was so fine in their role, so it was bad luck. I believe it takes time to recover but our defeat teaches you a lot, which helps you in the future.
Q. India will be facing off against Belgium in a double-header in away games on 11 June 2022 and 12 June. At the same time, the FIH Women’s Hockey Pro League and FIH Women’s World Cup are coming up. So are we ready to give a strong game to the opponents and how?
A. Yes, we are ready. As a senior team player, I can tell we are on the right track and we are working so hard, everyone is very ready and excited to play in the tournament.
Q. What is your hockey philosophy and how did you develop it? Is there an ideal form for how you want your team to play hockey? Or do you rather look to adapt to the players you have?
A. I think we had seen both bad and good times, with so many ups and downs. A player’s life is very unpredictable, sometimes too flourishes not so, injuries are a part too. Jenneke’s standard is too high, she expects the same from us, so it makes us push ourselves even more. She never gives up and we have learned it from her.
When your mind tells you that you have to push more so automatically your body does the double work, that is what we have learned from her. We will not give up in upcoming matches and give our best till the last moment.
For us, performance matters more than the result itself. As a team, if we perform well then, the result will also be well.