One of the few surviving members from the Indian hockey women’s team that was a part of the Rio Olympics in 2016, goalkeeper Savita Punia is eager to produce a better showing along with the rest of the Indian team in Tokyo in a few months time.
“It feels good to qualify for back-to-back Olympics especially considering India’s women’s hockey team wasn’t a part of the Olympics for many years,” Savita Punia told the Olympic Channel in a recent interview.
“Our performance at the last Olympics wasn’t very good, so we were determined to qualify for Tokyo 2020 and give a better account of ourselves this time,” she said.
Rio 2016 experience valuable heading into Tokyo 2020
The Indian hockey women’s team participated in the Olympics for just the second time in Rio and they didn’t fare well, losing four times and drawing once en-route to a 12th place finish.
Savita Punia, though, is eyeing redemption in Tokyo as she looks to bury the ghosts of Rio and the 29-year-old from Sirsa, Haryana explained why she thinks that’s possible.
“We didn’t have much experience the last time we competed at the Olympics in 2016. We knew we had to go there and play well but weren’t aware of the level of competition that we faced.
“This time I know the expectations are more from the people as our performances over the past few years have been good,” Savita Punia explained.
The goalkeeper feels that experience and not getting too far ahead of themselves will be integral to ninth-ranked India’s chances of success in Tokyo.
“This time we are more experienced and know that rankings count for little. The better team on the day will win. So, we are going to take things match by match.”
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves by setting objectives like getting to the quarter-finals. If we play well with confidence then we should succeed,” India’s first-choice goalkeeper declared.
Rise in fitness pivotal for India playing speed hockey
Besides experience at the top level, another major contrast between the Indian hockey women’s team of 2016 and 2020 is the difference in fitness levels of the two squads.
“Youngsters and adults, all know that the Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world, so the team is preparing and competing, keeping that in mind,” Savita Punia said.
“We started working hard ever since the Asian Games, knowing that the Olympics aren’t that far away. And we have also been focusing on our fitness a lot,” Savita Punia revealed.
Central to India’s shift of focus to fitness is Strength and Conditioning Specialist Wayne Lombard, who is known for getting the best out of athletes.
His influence on the team became clear when Savita Punia spoke of the impact that he has had ever since his arrival.
“Him being a part of our team is a big benefit. He’s been here since 2017 and in the first year, we didn’t see much of a difference in the team’s performance and fitness.
“(But) the results that our team has been getting over the last two years are because of fitness, in a way. His fitness tips are very helpful and it has helped all individuals push themselves further and improve,” she claimed.
And it’s not only the players but their coach Sjoerd Marijne also has immense faith in Wayne Lombard.
“Wayne Lombard being a part of the Indian team is a big plus for us now. Even the coach has a lot of faith in him and ensures that he gets as much time as he wants to work on our fitness. Sometimes, we don’t play hockey but just gym and run,” Savita Punia said.
She also insisted that it’s no coincidence that results have picked up ever since fitness has superseded skill - a similar mantra to the rest of the top teams in the world.
“Earlier, we were more about skill than fitness but seeing that we weren’t getting the results that we desired by implementing that method of preparation, we realised the importance of fitness.”
“If we look at the likes of Germany and the Netherlands, we see that fitness is one of their best attributes, which is why they can play at a speed that hockey these days demands of its players. To play speed hockey, improving fitness is a must,” Savita Punia asserted.
Adjusting to Tokyo weather conditions expected
While expanding on these fitness-centred training sessions, the Indian goalkeeper disclosed how they were replicating conditions that are expected in Tokyo by conducting afternoon sessions.
“It was tough during the first week (of training) because the weather during the afternoon is very hot, but we were aware of our goal and why we were training as hard as we were.
“Even though it’s difficult, we still are motivated to train in such conditions (similar to that of Japan), keeping our target in mind,” she said.
Savita Punia and the rest of India’s women’s hockey team is leaving no stone unturned in terms of their preparations. So can they better the fourth placed finish achieved by the team of 1980 and add a women's team to the illustrious list of India's medal winning teams?