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The ticket checker who led Indian hockey team to Tokyo Olympics, Sushila Chanu eyes a top-four spot in Tokyo

At 29, Sushila Chanu, who had led the team as the skipper in Rio Games, believes that the Indian Eves are much better positioned going into her second Olympics in Tokyo.

Indian Womens Hockey Player Sushila Chanu

Md Imtiaz

Updated: 2021-08-02T11:27:49+05:30

Ask any senior player from the Indian women's hockey team today, and they probably would have moved on from their forgettable outing at the Rio 2016 Olympics. At 29, Sushila Chanu, who had led the team as the skipper in Rio Games, believes that the Indian Eves are much better positioned going into her second Olympics in Tokyo.

"What we lacked in Rio was probably the experience. No doubt it was a historic achievement to qualify for the Olympics after 36 years, but of course, we were not satisfied with our performances in 2016," says the former captain in a freewheeling conversation with The Bridge.

So what changed in the last five years? Like many of her teammates, Chanu emphasised the havoc improvement in the core fitness of the team and the near-to-perfect alchemy of youth and experience. "I think the team has done exceedingly well in its fitness department. One of our drawbacks earlier was the team's fitness level, and today we have fined tuned it. The team has the right mix of seasoned and young players who have also refined their skill levels. Even five years back, a player moving forward with the ball had to think about whom to pass. Now it is a seamless channel." explains Chanu.

Chanu took up the sport at the budding age of 11 when her uncle introduced her to a turf near their house. In 2008, she made her debut in the blue jersey in the junior team set up. She was part of the team that won the bronze medal at the 2008 Women's Hockey Junior Asia Cup, held in Kuala Lumpur.

Before she transitioned to the senior team, Chanu graduated from the Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy, completed her course, and joined the joined Central Railways, Mumbai, as Junior Ticket Collector. In one of her early interviews, she told how senior ticket collectors would react to her face as a 10-year-old. Who would have thought Captain Chanu would do an MS Dhoni-esque feat to lead the side at the biggest stage of the sport.

Going into her second Olympics, Chanu sounds more confident and exudes a never-seen-before excitement, perhaps for being able to play at a competitive level after a long hiatus. "Going into Tokyo, our target would be on the bird's eye - a top-four finish is on my mind. We have a chance to undo our fate in Rio. One interesting fact is that, before we played at the Rio Olympics, we played the USA in a series of test matches. However, many who were in the team during the USA test matches were dropped from the team in Rio. This time also we have played the USA and earned our Olympics qualification. We more-or-less hae-ve the same team. Definitely, we are counting on it and looking forward to taking the field against the best teams of the world."

Sushila Chanu during Indian women's hockey team's tour to Argentina (Source: Hockey India)

The Indian Women's Hockey team secured their berth in the Tokyo Olympics as the unit led by Rani Rampal defeated USA 6-5 on the aggregate scoreline at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar in FIH Olympic Qualifies held in November 2019. After defeating the visitors 5-1 a day earlier, India failed to carry forward the momentum as they went down 4-1 in the second leg.

However, the solitary goal scored by skipper Rani Rampal was enough to help India secure a berth in the Olympics next year. Chanu recounts the emotions during the match, which almost got out of India's hand at a time. "In our qualifier match, we just knew we won't give up at any point in time. Yet we were worried that the number of goals we conceded, we thought they would equal us. Only a few seconds were left for the match and we were thinking about a shoot-out situation. Then Rani struck that goal; we couldn't control our joy."

Today Chanu is looked up to as one of the most experienced and prolific midfielders of the side. Her experience lends a benchmark to the team set for her juniors. However, in her words, there is no difference in the team as they have got plenty of time to build this unit as no senior-junior hierarchy zone. "I think the coordination between the juniors and seniors in the team didn't work well in Rio, But as the Tokyo Olympics got postponed for another year, we built a great unity among us. We motivated each other a lot. We also developed an invisible bond on the field as players exactly know whom to pass the ball at what time," says Chanu.

The Indian side faced stiff competition right from their group stage matches, and they were pooled with Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, and South Africa. Sushila implicates the world no.1 Dutch side is the team she is excited to play the most. "We all know that the Netherlands are the best side in the world. Being in the same pool, we would be tested to our core against them. However, we also have the ability to pull off surprises here and there. We haven't had the opportunity to play the Dutch team since 2015. I am looking forward to seeing to what extent our fitness will be tested against them."

Chanu concludes by talking about the source of sheer energy that she displays on the field. A knee rupture with an ACL, followed by broken nose surgery twice "I draw my inspiration from Mary Kom. I stare in awe at the 38-year-old who has risen to the pinnacle of her success even after the birth of her children. Whenever I feel down, I think about Mary. And this is also my message to every young hockey player of our country that do not give up. No matter how injured you are, how many setbacks you face, you should take it in stride and move on."

The Indian women's hockey team created history as they defeated World no. 2 Australia by the scoreline of 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics on Monday, August 2. The Indian Eves led by captain Rani Rampal has reached the semifinals of the Olympics for the first time. This is also the women's first-ever win against the mighty Australians.

We thank the team at Athletes Today for facilitating this interview. Sushila Chanu is one of the many athletes who are managed by Athletes Today.

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