Breaking stereotypes: Untold journey of India's Rugby heroines
Sheetal Sharma, Vaishnavi Patil, and Hupi Majhi's stories are sagas of dreams pursued and stereotypes shattered that inspire a nation.
In a world where sports often serve as a mirror reflecting the heartbeat of society, the stories of Sheetal, Vaishnavi, and Hupi - three of the leading lights of the Indian women's rugby 7s team at the 2023 Asian Games - emerge as luminous beacons of hope, tenacity, and transformation.
These remarkable women, hailing from various corners of India, serendipitously found themselves converging on the rugby field, a sacred arena where they didn't just master a game but learnt to tackle life's challenges head-on.
Sheetal Sharma - Leading with grit and grace
Sheetal, the towering captain of the Indian women's rugby team, stumbled upon the world of rugby in 2016, gracefully transitioning from her pursuits in volleyball and athletics.
Coming from a family of five sisters and a brother, the loss of their father had cast a long shadow. Sheetal was presented with two choices: dance or sports. She chose the latter - Athletics - but harbored a deep desire for contact sports, for the rugged battles on the field. Despite clinching a bronze medal in athletics, her heart whispered that her destiny lay elsewhere.
Her ascent was meteoric, from representing the Delhi Hurricanes to captaining the India Women's sevens Rugby Team.
The captaincy was an enormous responsibility she embraced with a glint of pride in her eyes. "Entering the Asian Games as a captain is an immense responsibility, it's a grand competition. I was ecstatic when they announced my name as the captain. I never expected to reach this point, but I'm content, feeling as if I've truly achieved something."
Rugby, Sheetal attests, has enriched her life. "Playing rugby has been an enlightening journey, teaching me the essence of comportment both on and off the field. My family shares in the pride of my representation of India," she concluded.
Vaishnavi Patil- Shattering stereotypes
Vaishnavi Patil embarked on her rugby journey in the 7th grade. Initially, the sport daunted her, not just due to its physical demands but also because of societal skepticism about girls playing sports.
The daughter of an auto driver father and a mother who works in farms in Maharashtra's Kolhapur, playing rugby was not something Vaishnvai could look to any role models for.
"Initially, I was gripped by fear; rugby, with its bone-jarring tackles, looked intimidating. Moreover, we lacked a proper ground and struggle to get nutritious food. But the most formidable hurdle was the lingering question of why girls had to participate in sports. Thankfully, my coach Dipak Patil and my family stood by me."
Nevertheless, her father held reservations. "My father initially opposed, but my grandfather and mother provided strong support. Today, my younger brother is also a rugby player, inspired by my journey to dream of representing India," she said.
Vaishnavi has a clear vision for the team's mission at the Asian Games. "Our goal is to showcase India's rugby at the Asian Games."
Hupi Majhi- The Dreamer who soared
Odisha's Hupi Majhi, a defiant dreamer who dared to challenge societal norms, encountered rugby during leisurely classroom breaks. Gradually, this fleeting pastime transformed into an all-consuming dream.
When she first came to the big city, Bhubaneswar, she was scared of talking to people too, let alone playing a game that looked as dangerous as rugby.
"I would casually join the rugby game during interval time. But when our boys' team embarked on a journey to England, that became my dream too. I yearned to take that flight, to embark on a similar adventure."
Sitting on an airplane might have been the initial aspiration, but the journey that unfolded surpassed her wildest expectations.
Hupi reflects, "Rugby transformed my life. My dream was never to become a professional player, yet here I stand, elated to be granted the opportunity to compete in the Asian Games."
However, the path to this achievement was strewn with challenges. Hupi adds, "When I first broached the subject with my family, they vehemently objected. It was deemed unacceptable in our village, they argued, citing concerns about having to wear short pants, girls going outside home... there were a lot of objections. Yet, my sister and her husband stepped in to help. As my name began appearing in newspapers and on social media, my entire family rallied around me."
Rugby provided Hupi a government job and changed her way of living. "Now I can handle everything," she said with a smile.
In the grand stage of the Asian Games, these three women may appear as ordinary players, but their journeys, characterized by unwavering courage, relentless determination, and steadfast support, are nothing short of extraordinary.
They embody the countless untold stories of athletes who, through sports like rugby, find the path to self-discovery and serve as radiant inspirations for others to dream beyond the confines of their circumstances.