Despite a significant milestone, the Indian women's hockey team would try not to remember their outing at the Rio 2016 Olympics. It was when the team had qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 36 years. After starting their campaign with a 2-2 draw against Japan, India were comprehensively beaten by Australia (1-6), Great Britain (0-3), and the USA (0-3). However, their moment of truth came after the team suffered a humiliating 0-5 loss against Argentina in their final Pool B fixture to end their campaign at the Games.
Five years down the line, India faced Argentina once again, coming into the threshold of the Tokyo Olympics. They drew one, reached close to a draw in another one. One of the biggest positives in the series came out as the goalkeeping showcased by Savita Punia. The old guard, Savita, is once again going to be the sole custodian at the goalpost when India fly to Tokyo for their second consecutive Olympics in July. She is one of the eight among the 16-member team who was part of India's history journey to Rio in 2016.
Indian womens hockey team for the Tokyo Olympics
The 30-year-old athlete from Haryana has moved on miles ahead of the Rio disappointment and is weaving new hopes for Tokyo. In an exclusive video interaction from the Sports Authority Centre in Bengaluru, she told The Bridge, "We have eight members in the team who had played at the 2016 Rio Olympics. We all know that our performance at the Rio Games was not up to the mark. I could say individually, and I was not pleased with my performance. In the last Olympic cycle, there have been several changes in the team - in terms of experience, performance, and fitness levels. As a goalkeeper, I have gained a wider experience with which I have been able to work on my shortcomings. So naturally, we have more hopes at this year's Tokyo Olympics."
In the last Olympic cycle, The Indian women's team has established itself as a strong contender, having won the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, 2017 Asia Cup, the Silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games and making it to the Quarter Finals of the 2018 World Cup. Savita was on and off the field at these matches during the course, with Rajani Etimarpu filling her shoes. But in Tokyo, she would be on the field for 60 minutes in every match they play.
"I will not deny there will be no pressure. However, this is the time to replicate what I have learned in the last five years. I have grown a lot calmer and try to be present at the moment of the game than I used to be during the 2016 Olympics. Experience has been my best teacher," the goalkeeper adds.
The Indian team has put up some impressive shows in the last three years, including taking on the world's top sides like Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Spain, among others. The side even rose up to their career-best ranking of world no.9 in due course. The results have also revealed the fresh potential of the players, which has inspired them to go all out against any team in the world without fearing about their rankings.
"In the last four years, our players have individually set their mark. Since 2017, we have had the opportunity to play and practice against the best teams and best players in the world. We played the World Cup in 2018 and then went on play Germany and Argentina also this year. So through these matches, we have come to know about our potential and standards in global hockey. We initially had the mentality of always thinking about team's ranking. But now, we focus on our own performance. On a given day, we can play the best hockey of our lives even against the top-ranked team. Our coach, Sjoerd Marijne, has instilled that confidence within us. I am very inspired this time and think that we will play our best and so that after we go back and face ourselves in front of a mirror, we shouldn't regret the decisions we have taken on the field. The secret to it lies in going on the course one match at a time."
So what are the key changes did Savita notice in the team from Rio 2016 to Tokyo 2021?
"I can vouch for the fact that we have one of the fittest teams in the world, which is highly recommended in high-pressure situations like the Olympics. We also have better drag-flicking abilities in the team compared to 2016. We have two great drag flickers. Agility is another area in which our team has excelled. For instance, the youngsters like Lalremsiami, Sharmila, Salima are exceptionally fast. Vandana is one of the oldest team members, yet she is the swiftest on the field. The quality that our team has today further motivates me to double my effort in training," shares Savita?
Savita Punia taking up the charge
She goes on admiring the facilities the Indian team received despite the lockdown being enforced in the SAI campus. "The lockdown had initially disappointed us as it came so suddenly. We came back to Bengaluru after New Zealand tour. We knew we would get a break and would be going back to our homes for a week. We were working out in our gyms in high spirits, thinking about our break at home. Our buses had also arrived to take us to the airport. But suddenly we got a call from our staff saying that a lockdown will get imposed from March 23, 2020.in the entire country. We couldn't leave Bengaluru and that was quite a dull moment we had last year. Luckily, our staff were very motivating and they understood our problems. Then we started our training and we were conditioned to our workouts," she said.
A shootout situation is one of the biggest challenges faced by a goalkeeper. The 30-year-old, who has been a part of several shoot-outs encounters says that with experience, she has learned not to anticipate and be present at the moment till the ball is hit. "We train for shootouts every week. I used to think a lot before the shootouts. I now think of one stroke at a time. You have to often read a player to understand her psyche during a penalty stroke. We read up and study a lot about our opponents before going into the challenge," Savita adds.
Talking about her confidence, Savita concludes, "I am a bit introverted but whenever I wear the helmet with the Indian badge on it, it instills plenty of confidence in me and makes me fearless. It is the best thing I could ask for and going into the Tokyo Olympics, it would be my biggest strength."