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The year was 1999. It was the year that Manipur, a state far into the extremities of North Eastern India, had bagged the hosting rights for the very prestigious National Games. Back then, unbeknownst to many, a 7-year old was present in the stadium along with her grandmother. Her interest mainly lay in watching the action unfold in the football field. But this tournament was the one where she would be introduced to a sport which would turn out to be her legacy. 1999 was the year Sushila Chanu found out what hockey was. If you ever type the phrase "Hockey in Manipur" on Google's search bar, one of the earliest results it yields is a Wikipedia page on Khong Kangjei. The dexterity of the game as it is described indicates a very deep relation that the sport has with the indigenous population of the state. It might be seen as a very close cousin of the game of Hockey, albeit with blatant differences in style and cultural backstories. Not only does it employ the possibility of traditional wrestling or "mukna" within its play, but it also employs the basic structure of a football game. In a way it indicates the paradoxical relationship that the state of Manipur has with Hockey- deep rooted and far removed all at once.
The humble beginnings"I remember once that my State's Association had brought out a circular which forbid us girls from traveling outside the state," Sushila muses during a conversation with The Bridge. "They essentially told us that whatever training we needed, whatever competition we needed, we had to be content within only Manipur." "At that time, I had a senior who stood up to say that enough is enough. She practically fought with the administration to make sure that this circular did not stand." "Just imagine. How can players improve if they are restricted to just one state," Sushila questions. To say that Sushila has come a long way since her first tryst with the sport of Hockey would be an understatement. From a financially backward background to rising up to take up the mantle of the Team captain at 24 years of age, her story is the one that is less associated with Manipur. Thanks to the heroics of Mary Kom and Sarita Devi, the state has become synonymous with world-class boxers. After their exploits at the Commonwealth Games, Mirabai Chanu and Sanjita Chanu even contributed to a growing appreciation and fan-following for the state's sports policy when it came to weightlifting too. But was Hockey ever given the same importance? "The only connection to Hockey in my family was my aunt but it wasn't she who encouraged me. That was my uncle. He's a driver, like my father and he never had anything to do with sport," Sushila says. "I dabbled in Football and Boxing when I was younger but he selected Hockey for me. Honestly, I just followed what he asked me to without giving it a second thought. If he would have told me to pursue Boxing, I would have done that," she adds. With Manipur not having had a stable inspiration or a person to look up to when it came to playing Hockey in its current form, one would think that Sushila Chanu is probably a pioneer back home- at least when it came to women's Hockey. But according to her, she would have been nowhere without the guidance of her seniors and her family. Apathy from the official administration aside, the tone in Sushila's voice seems to suggest that she would have given up long ago if the correct inspiration had not reached her at the right time. "As a child, I remember being chosen as the standby for both the Junior and the sub-junior teams. I was so disappointed, I stopped playing for four months," she looks back, deep in thought. Had it not been for the combined efforts of her friends and seniors, the legacy of Sushila Chanu would probably have been killed before it even came into existence. Battling that to blossom into a leader under whom the Indian Women's team won a coveted Junior World Cup medal in Monchengladbach was a commendable feat indeed. "Now, my uncle's son keeps saying that he wants to be like me. Whenever I go home, he pesters me to train with him, he plays like me and tries to copy everything I do," she laughs. "If there is one thing I want to teach him, it's to find his own ground and develop his own style. He will, with more practice."
The Olympic captain and the Ticket CollectorIt has not been all easy going for Sushila Chanu. In 2016, the same year as the Olympics, a biopic on MS Dhoni was greeted by general adulation by the public. Seeing their real life hero being represented in Bollywood was definitely a matter of much pomp and show. The movie chronicled the journey of India's former Cricket captain as he climbed those heights from being a ticket collector employed for a menial salary. Despite all the limelight afforded to him and the general head-shaking at the Indian sports system, Sushila Chanu and her remarkably similar story remained untold. "I joined Railways in 2010 through the Sports quota when I went to live in Mumbai. The job was thoroughly boring and the money, as I realised, not enough at all." "The thing about sports in India is that most athletes drop out if they see that this career line is not enough to sustain them. It's very discouraging. When I live in Mumbai, when there is no National Camp going on, I have to take care of all my expenses," Sushila adds. "Every day is a task. We have to constantly save and think twice before spending on anything at all," she finishes with a sigh.
From Manipur to RioDespite this, Sushila remains optimistic about the future of the sport, especially when it comes to her home state. Since the time she trained there as a young state level player, till now, the state has seen an incomparable progress when it comes to the number of youngsters opting to take up the sport. "The only problem is that the National Games turf from 1999 is the only one that is still there," she laughs. "But still, a lot more people and children now play hockey than I ever remember seeing." It might a reasonable conclusion to say that this girl might have been the beginning of the change that she speaks about in her state. Demure and infamously quiet while talking to the media, Sushila Chanu has let her on-field persona do most of the talking for her. Reading and learning from the game, turning each negative into a valuable learning experience, they come easy for her. That clearly comes across when she talks about her stint as the captain during the Rio Olympics. For Sushila, it was a memorable outing even though a superficial glance at the final standings seem to suggest that India had spectacularly failed to make a mark on the biggest stage of them all. "Above all, it was an eye-opening trip. Before the Olympics, we had gone to the USA to train and we had a brush with their main players. None of us were very experienced when it came to representing India on that big a stage," she recalls. "We definitely learnt a lot." Faced with financial diffculties while growing up, India's Sushila Chanu has learnt to make every day count. "When I used to train and live in the hostel at SAI, I used to ask my parents for pocket money. They never told me that they borrowed from other people to make sure that I was comfortable," she says. "When I found out, I was terribly hurt. I did not like that at all that they went ahead and borrowed money and lessened their pride for me." As an afterthought, she adds, "That's why it's important I take care of them. Every little bit counts." As a final piece of advice, she was unable to close the conversation without drawing it back to her home state and the countless youngsters who look up to her. "You know, for them, it's important to practice hard until they are satisfied with their performance. And then practice some more. Never be so naive as to think you're good enough." "That's how you become successful," she says with a smile.