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India's Women's Field Hockey Team Captain on Growing up in Poverty: 'I Wanted an Escape'

·4-min read
India's Rani (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Netherlands during their women's pool A match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo on July 24, 2021.
India's Rani (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Netherlands during their women's pool A match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo on July 24, 2021.

INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty

Before leading the Indian women's hockey team to the semifinals at the Tokyo Olympics, life for team captain Rani Rampal was not easy.

In a post on the "Humans of Bombay" page on Facebook, the 26-year-old recalled her tumultuous journey to the Summer Games, which began in Haryana's Shahabad.

Rani faced several hardships early in her life — from lack of electricity and food to swatting away mosquitoes at night and watching her house flood when it rained. Her father was a cart puller and her mother a maid.

"I wanted an escape from my life," she began the June 27 post.

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Rani's fascination with field hockey began when she was a child. She said she would spend hours watching players practice at a hockey academy near her home, but could not afford the equipment necessary to play herself.

India's Rani (L) is tackled by Argentina's Agostina Alonso during their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.
India's Rani (L) is tackled by Argentina's Agostina Alonso during their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty

A coach at the academy refused Rani's requests for help learning the game. "He'd say, 'You aren't strong enough to pull through a practice session," she said.

So, Rani took it upon herself to learn the game with a broken hockey stick in a traditional South Asian dress called a salwar kameez. "But I was determined to prove myself," she added.

Eventually, she convinced the coach to let her train. Getting approval from her family was the next roadblock.

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After informing them of her opportunity, Rani said her parents told her, "Ladkiya ghar ka kaam hi karti hai," and "Hum tumhe skirt pehan kar khlene nahi denge." (In English, the phrases translate to "Girls only do household work" and "We won't allow you to play in skirts.")

Rani said she begged for her family's approval, suggesting "If I fail, I do whatever you want." They hesitantly agreed.

Players of India gather after losing 2-1 to Argentina in their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.
Players of India gather after losing 2-1 to Argentina in their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty

The obstacles did not stop there.

When she began training, Rani could not afford to bring the 500ml of milk required of players. So without a word, she watered down the 200ml she could afford.

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Rani said her coach supported her "through thick and thin." He bought her shoes and hockey kits while she was still unable to afford the proper training equipment — and even let her stay with his family to help her improve her diet.

At age 15, Rampal was called up to the national level for the first time. She made her debut in the 2010 World Cup and scored five of India's seven goals in the game.

Despite support from her immediate family, Rani said other relatives continued to ask about when she planned to get married.

Her father offered her a piece of advice: "Play with your heart's content."

Rani's success on the field led to her being named captain of India's national team. She said she was crying at home over the news when a friend of her father's paid a visit with his granddaughter, who looked up to Rani.

Players of India listen to their national anthem before the women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition against Argentina, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.
Players of India listen to their national anthem before the women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition against Argentina, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty

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"[He] told me 'She is inspired by you and wants to become a hockey player!'" she recalled. "I was so happy; I just started crying."

When Rani received her first salary of 500 rupees, she gave the money to her father, who she said "hadn't held so much money in his hands before."

"I promised my family, 'One day, we're going to have our own home,' " she said. And she ultimately kept her promise, doing that in 2017.

Rani was part of the Indian team that represented India at the Rio Olympics in 2016. It was the first time the Indian women's team qualified for the Games in 36 years.

This year, Rani said she was "determined to repay" her family and coach "with something they've always dreamed of — a gold medal from Tokyo."

Unfortunately they fell short of that goal — on Wednesday, Argentina eliminated India from medal contention at the Summer Games with a 2-1 victory in the semifinals.

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.

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