Rajani on lockdown days at SAI Bengaluru: ‘We really came together as a unit’

The goalkeeper, who has represented India in 91 matches, including the 2010 World Cup and the CWG besides the 2016 Rio Olympics, is now dreaming of making it big in Tokyo next year.

R. Rajani says the biggest challenge during the lockdown has been to stay away from the field.   -  Special Arrangement

For the 29-year-old E. Rajani, who hails from Chittoor of Andhra Pradesh and is now a member of the Indian women’s hockey camp at the SAI South Centre in Bengaluru, the lockdown is a blessing in disguise as they prepare for the postponed Olympics next year.

The goalkeeper, who has represented India in 91 matches, including the 2010 World Cup and the Commonwealth Games besides the 2016 Rio Olympics, is now dreaming of making it big in Tokyo next year.

Rajani, daughter of a carpenter, shares her thoughts with the Sportstar in a detailed interview.

How have you been coping up with the lockdown?

I think it is a difficult situation for everyone and it has been really sad to see that people around the world have lost so many lives. However, in our case what helped was that the entire team was in SAI, Bengaluru, and we could depend on each other for any kind of support. I felt we really came together as a unit, and utilised the break from the sport in a way that really helped our team come together. We had to respect the guidelines so we were just making sure we were following our fitness schedule given to us by our Scientific Advisor Wayne Lombard, and focusing on maintaining our physical and mental health. I also had the chance to give time to my hobbies like reading and it was good to experience this phase with my teammates.

READ | Indian hockey team returns home after COVID-19 lockdown

What has been the biggest challenge while training during the lockdown?

I think the biggest challenge has been that we have had to stay away from the field and stay in touch with the game inside our rooms and the building. It is different in the way that you can practice things like reflexes and doing your fitness workouts, and even run on the treadmill, but that feeling of actually being on the field and participating in practice sessions or actual matches is something that has been difficult to replicate staying indoors. However, I am sure that once we get back to normalcy, we will only have to take a couple of weeks to get into the groove.

Do you think as a player this lockdown has come at the wrong time for you?

I am someone who always looks at the positives, and I feel it could even be a blessing in disguise for all of us if we perform well in Tokyo next year. It is down to how you take it individually, and I have taken it very positively - I believe it is a chance for us to use this extra time to do our homework, and also use this time to improve overall, and gain one year extra year of experience before the big tournament. We were obviously in a good rhythm before the lockdown, but I don't think it should take us much time to play at the same level again.

What do you look forward to in a post-COVID-19 scenario as a player?

I think the scenario for us remains the same as it does for pretty much everyone else in the world. We will look to adhere to the guidelines we are given by FIH (International Hockey Federation), Hockey India, and SAI (Sports Authority of India). I think it is important to remain safe, and be cautious of everything around us. We will obviously be focused on playing well, and resuming like other sports. It will be definitely good to see that sport has a place in the post COVID-19 era.

How do you look at your future?

I don't think my career and performances will be affected because of COVID-19. I think our ambitions and our plans remain the same as they would if the virus hadn’t struck. I am also the kind of person who likes to take it one day at a time, and I don't like to think about the future too much. So apart from the Olympics getting postponed by a year, I don't think much changes for us. Instead, I feel we will only get better as a unit because even the younger players would have one extra year of experience before stepping foot in Tokyo.

How do you think women’s hockey in shaping up in the country? Are you happy with the kind of support for the sport?

I think the future of Indian women's hockey is really bright. I remember when I was younger we did not have a lot of great players coming through and the pool was limited, but if you see now, there is a huge pool of talented girls who are coming through the ranks. Even in our junior core probables’ group you will find a lot of players who have tremendous potential to play for the Senior team in the coming future. I am also very happy to see how the support for our team and our sport has increased in the past decade, especially after we made it to the Rio Olympics in 2016. It was where we had qualified for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years, so it was a huge achievement and people started noticing us for sure. We also felt that support when we played in Bhubaneswar, Odisha in 2019 at the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifiers, it was truly a sight to see.

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What are your expectations and goals now?

I think the expectations remain the same for us. We will, both personally and collectively, aim to win an Olympic medal. We could not have a great moment in Rio four years ago, but what we always discuss is to create history, and make sure that we do something extraordinary that we can leave behind a legacy for years to come. Everyone should remember this team - and that can only happen if we give our best in the tournaments we play next and then in Tokyo next year.

What has been the best moment so far and the most disappointing?

I think the best moment for me personally was definitely the Olympic Qualifiers of 2015 where we made it to the Rio Games. It was a moment where we all realised how much the sport meant to the nation, and how our performances on the field really made our families proud. It was a moment where I realised that everyone in my village and even my state got to know about me, and it earned a huge amount of respect for my parents as well. I don't think I can recall any moment in my career where I've felt really low, which I suppose is a good thing as an athlete.

Realistically, any immediate goals you set for yourself?

The only immediate goal that I have in mind is to maintain my fitness and make sure that I am giving preference to my diet, workout and recovery. It is important because once we are closer to normalcy, we will take less time to be at our peak if we are in top shape right now as well.

If you were not a hockey player what would you have loved to be?

I think I would've been a decent student at school. I remember I was always bright at school and would love to study as well. If given a choice, I would've probably been a teacher or done something related to science.

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