When she does decide to eventually call it a day, Savita Punia will go down as one of the biggest inspirations to have emerged from Indian women’s hockey in the past decade.
She hails from the Jodhkan village in Sirsa, Haryana and hers is a journey of not just overcoming social pressures that most women athletes in India face but also one where she had to bide her time from the sidelines patiently to realise her dream of being the nation’s first-choice goalkeeper.
Grandfather’s encouragement a springboard
Integral to Savita Punia’s success was the belief shown in her as a youngster by her grandfather, Mahinder Singh. He encouraged her to pursue a career in hockey and once she fell in love with the game, there was no looking back.
Despite not being too fond of hockey initially primarily because of the weight of the goalkeeping gear, her grandfather’s backing and the money invested towards her gear encouraged her to take up the sport seriously.
After being initiated into the sport in 2001, Savita Punia went for her first hockey trial three years later. “I had given a trial in 2004 in a government nursery that had opened,” she told the Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.
“I used to stay in my village and study in a government school when suddenly the elder brother of a football coach from my village came to my house and informed us about selections. My brother and I decided we would go for the selections irrespective of whether we get selected or not,” she added.
However, the situation at home wasn’t ideal for her to completely focus and concentrate on hockey after her mother was diagnosed with early arthritis.
“From the fifth standard, I used to take care of everything at home after my mother fell ill and was hospitalized,” Savita Punia revealed.
“But my grandfather was adamant about me leaving the house to achieve something more and so were the rest of the people at home who were very open-minded and wanted me to achieve something.
“It was my grandfather’s wish that I play hockey,” she elaborated.
Spurred on by her grandfather and a desire to achieve something beyond the norm for women in her village, after honing her skills in Sirsa’s Maharaja Agrasain School, Savita Punia got a call from the national camp.
Becoming India’s first-choice goalkeeper
She soon became a part of the senior hockey women’s squad in 2008 but had to wait for her opportunity to become the first-choice goalkeeper. Following a handful of games in goal over the next five years, Savita Punia’s ascension to the first-choice goalkeeper came in 2013.
After making her mark in the women’s Asia Cup in 2013 and winning bronze at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, Savita Punia had well and truly arrived having firmly established herself as India’s undisputed number one goalkeeper.
Her displays between the goalposts went from strength to strength in the subsequent years with excellent performances during memorable wins in the FIH Hockey World League in Belgium in 2015, where she kept out a bombardment of penalty corners against Japan to help the Indian team qualify for the Rio Olympics.
Having qualified for the Olympics after 36 years, the Indian women’s hockey team didn’t exactly enjoy the best of results at Rio 2016. They lost four and drew one of their five matches before eventually finishing in 12th spot.
That said, the experience of competing at the Rio Olympics 2016 proved to be invaluable for both Savita Punia and the rest of the team. It seemed to instil her with the belief of belonging to the top level of women’s hockey as her performances thereafter demonstrate.
Rio heartbreak lays foundation for solid future
A part of the spine of the team that won the 2017 Asia Cup, her contribution in the final match as India beat China 5-4 in a shoot-out to win the tournament and earn a gold medal for the first time in 13 years as well as qualify for the 2018 World Cup, will not be forgotten.
Her match-winning save to deny China’s Liang Meiyu was one of her standout moments from the tournament, where she was deservedly adjudged the goalkeeper of the tournament.
While she, along with the rest of the squad, didn’t enjoy the best World Cup in 2018, they did fare well in the 2018 Asian Games, which saw them clinch the silver medal to go one better than their bronze medal finish in the 2014 Asian Games.
The honours both collective and personal kept on coming for the Indian goalkeeper as years went by with her even receiving the Arjuna Award in 2018. However, the hunger to better their performance from Rio 2016 still burns brightly within Savita Punia and Hockey India.
And now with the Tokyo Games postponed, she along with her teammates have extra time to work on their fitness and garner more experience ahead of sports’ showpiece event.
Needless to say, Savita Punia and her teammates will be gunning to better Indian women hockey’s best-ever finish of fourth-placed at the Olympics from back in 1980, and perhaps even add themselves as the first women's team to join the prestigious list of Indian medal-winning teams in hockey.