She is the last line of defense for the Indian Hockey Team and she has been so for a very long time. She is the wall who played a pivotal role in helping the Indian team qualify for the Rio Olympics in what was a rare appearance on the biggest World stage. But for Savita Punia, it seems that no amount of feathers in her cap will be enough to bring her to the attention of the Haryana Government.
Since the completion of the Commonwealth Games, one thing that has made the waves in the very niche world of Indian sports is the public tussle between the state’s Government and the state’s medalists at the tournament. An inconsistent disagreement may only now be coming to the limelight but here we have the classic case of apathy and what might only be called a deliberate blindness to the livelihood of an athlete who has been consistent in her laurels for both country and state. And unlike the recent controversy, the silent fight for recognition has been Savita Punia’s for nearly five years now.
“The funny thing is, the Haryana Government is actually famed for supporting athletes and rewarding them when needed. Who knows what happens when it comes to my case,” says Savita with a little laugh in a conversation with The Bridge.
The road has been long and hard
While most stories coming out of the lives of Indian athletes focus particularly on their inclination towards sports and the basic battle against respective families and the system, the converse of that applies in this case.
For 14 years, Savita has made the game her identity but, quite surprisingly, that is not what she initially wanted. In fact, in her own words, even goalkeeping is something that she began to enjoy only recently. The decision to take up hockey, she says, was not hers but her family’s who insisted on sport as a way forward for her life.
“In fact, before I came to the National Camp for the first time, I never took my game seriously. Even goalkeeping is something that I have only just started enjoying.”
Anyone watching Savita under the bar would agree that she is a natural. The role fits her like a glove and never, for once, does she look shaky or out of place. Remember the final of the Asia Cup between India and China way back in November 2017? Among the many factors which had affected the Indian team in the weeks leading up to the tournament, perhaps the biggest change came in the form of Harendra Singh who was a last minute appointment as the coach of the Women’s team.
But the performance of the team in the tournament would not give an observer any hint of that. Looking specifically at Savita Punia and her brilliance, a saved goal in the penalty shootout against China gave India the title. Additionally, it gave the team a direct qualification to the 2018 FIH Hockey World Cup scheduled to be held in July.
“The entire team, myself included, feels very comfortable with Harendra sir. Actually the best part about him is that he focuses on the positives as well as the negatives. That is very encouraging especially for the younger players who are just now starting to play internationally,” she says.
“Ours is a diverse team and typically, the one problem we faced with foreign coaches was the language barrier- the main reason for miscommunication or the lack of it.”
“With Harendra sir, he understands. If someone is not comfortable with a particular language, he makes sure that communication is not affected. Only if we can speak out properly about our problems can he solve them,” Savita continues.
For a goalkeeper of her stature, someone who bagged the goalkeeper of the tournament award at the recent Asia Cup, one would imagine that years of playing and wisdom have left her at a position to pass down some of her experience to the youngsters of the team, just as veterans of the generation preceding hers had a role to play in her development as a keeper.
“Under the current strategy, even junior players are given a chance to play. That’s very important.”
“Earlier, I never enjoyed goalkeeping. The main reason was that experience was made a priority then and I hardly got a chance to play.”
“Coming from that situation, if you are suddenly made to keep in a major game, you have no confidence on your performance,” she observes.
“The fight has not been mine alone”
The striking thing about this girl from Haryana is her thorough understanding of the game. What also stands out is her refusal to let the bitterness and apathy that she has so long faced from the concerned authorities affect her talent. The last five years have seen Savita Punia make multiple visits to Government officials including the sports Minister of the state.
“Just not me alone. My father has gone on my behalf but several trips have still proved nothing. I doubt anyone else has waited as long as I have for just a response,” she says.
As an afterthought, Savita adds, “You might say that I am running out of time as I grow older. All this time, it has been only my family who has supported me. But this is the only way that I can do something for them, getting a stable income.”
A meeting with Haryana sports minister Anil Vij during the Rio Olympics had coaxed a promise out of the minister. “He said, come to me after Rio. I will see that this is solved in two months.”
“The thing is, when you are a part of a team that has just won a major tournament, when you have stood out in that tournament, congratulations keep coming in like a flood. But after some time, it is all forgotten.”
“I think I have been the victim of poor memory,” she adds with a resigned smile.
And well, it’s been two years since the Olympics with things yet to change. Personally, Savita says she has shown her face to the concerned authorities just once after the encounter with Vij at Rio. But what is astounding is that even after years of holding up the baton of producing elite athletes in India, Savita’s case is the one that continues to be ignored.
In fact, according to the goalkeeper, Haryana is the one state that has stood out when it comes to supporting athletes. Maybe other governments have caught up with time with Haryana has always been a pioneer when it comes to valuing athletes.
“This is definitely not how things are carried out in the state,” she says in a matter of fact tone.
“In fact, the situation was such that awards and recognition in the state actually made parents want their children to pursue a life in sports. They may have a problem with their girls wearing jeans or shorts but never a problem in encouraging girls to play,” Savita adds.
Since the time, she has been associated with the sport, Hockey has indeed come a long way. From in-fighting to botched up administrations in the country, from politics to a decline in the general quality of the game, Hockey in India now stands at the cusp of hosting the very prestigious Men’s World Cup; something that can only be held as a major improvement. In fact, as Savita says, a renewed focus on factors like diet and mental fitness have gone a long way in boosting both the morale and the game of the teams.
“Earlier, we used to play in local kits. Now even that has been upgraded. See it’s the little things like this which matter.”
The never-say-die attitude
All said and done, support has been outpouring in the life of Savita Punia from most quarters and, for the most part, she feels lucky enough to have had it relatively easy. Family, coaches and Hockey India- the three pillars necessary in the development of a hockey athlete, she has had it all.
“I remember once before the 2013 Asia Cup, my passport had gone missing. At that point I had given up all hope of traveling with the team. So, at that time, my father ran from pillar to post with a letter by Hockey India and a tatkaal passport was made in one evening,” she muses.
“The important lesson he taught me with his anxious support at that time was that giving up hope is very easy. Staying determined, fighting on and never giving up- that is what our attitude should be.”
On that note, there is just one thing left to ponder upon. Hockey India has supported her. The country has long respected her for being a custodian of the sport. Her family, after initially forcing the game on her, has always stood by her.
So is it just the Haryana government then who refuses to acknowledge her for the player that she is? For the hard work that she has put in? For the laurels she has won?
To those questions, Savita Punia only has a wry smile to offer in reply.