Savita Punia: ‘I am what I am because of my team’

Savita Punia produced her best in the Indian women’s hockey team’s quarterfinal triumph over the mighty Australians at the Tokyo Olympics. In a chat with Sportstar, she reflects on her journey and her goals for what is another important year for the team.

Timeless: Savita Punia, 31, still has some unfinished business and wants to continue playing. “Age is not an issue for a goalkeeper The chief coach (Janneke Schopman) says as long as you are fit, reflexes are fast and you feel like you are performing at a high level, you keep going.”   -  BISWARANJAN ROUT

For Savita Punia, the fourth-placed finish at the Tokyo Olympics last year was a culmination of four years of toil to overcome the pain of the group-stage exit in Rio.

Backbone of the women’s national team for well over a decade, Savita produced her best in the quarterfinal triumph over the mighty Australians in Japan. The shot-stopper kept the Aussies at bay with nine big saves to lead the side to a 1-0 win.

Savita took over the captaincy for the FIH Pro League in Rani Rampal’s absence. On the sidelines of the Sportstar Aces Awards, where she was voted Sportswoman of the Year (Team Sports), Savita reflected on her journey from the 2016 Olympics, her future and her goals for what is another important year for the team.

What do individual recognitions mean to you?

I am what I am because of the team. When an individual in a team receives an award, the team always shares happiness in that, and it always happens with our team.

And it was also a night of recognition for our team, which we worked towards for a period of four years for the Olympics. And when that achievement at the Olympics earns the love and respect of the audience, it’s a big deal for us. This acts as a motivation for the team to set our next target for this year with the World Cup and the Asian Games coming up.

How was the last year, personally, for you?

As a goalkeeper, there is always that extra responsibility. As a senior player, it became more during the Olympics. Individually, it wasn’t my best at the 2016 Olympics. After qualifying for the 2020 edition, my target was to put in the work so I can have a good performance to help my team. Mistakes are a part of being a goalkeeper and the game constantly teaches us that. The more experience you have, the more you enjoy the game and fight for your team.

Team player: Goalkeeper Savita Punia receives the Sportswoman of the Year (Team Sports) award from former Hockey player Adrian D’Souza and Palki Sharma, Editor, Wion during the Sportstar Aces Awards in Mumbai.   -  K.R. Deepak

 

One of the best things this year is that we have entered the Pro League for the first time and the team is doing well against the top teams.

You shy away from spotlight. But with Rani Rampal in rehabilitation, does that add more responsibility as a senior player?

As a senior, I always try to help and motivate the younger members in the team. On the field, I am ready to help everyone. Off the field, too, I take time out to help them. Rani and I are in constant discussions to work out how we can help them. And even today, I am not alone in taking the responsibility in this team. There are other players who come under the leadership group. Our aim is to perform well ourselves and set examples for others to follow.

You are now 31. Not many women hockey players in the country play over the age of 30. What motivates you to continue...

My family. My parents, my brother, my teammates give me the strength to continue. Only when someone tells me what my age is, I realise how old I am (laughs). One thing sport has taught me is that, if you are fit and have a goal set for yourself and are dedicated, then the age doesn’t matter. As a girl, I have got a very supportive family. My target was to perform well at the Olympics, but still, something is missing… so to achieve that we will continue to work towards it. My coaches also tell me that age is not an issue for a goalkeeper and that it should never cross my mind. The chief coach (Janneke Schopman) also says as long as you are fit, reflexes are fast and you feel like you are performing at a high level, then you keep going. It’s an advantage being a goalkeeper. And it’s not just for goalkeepers. All over the field as well, and across sports, as long as you are fit and are dedicated, age doesn’t matter in this era.

“Mistakes are a part of being a goalkeeper and the game constantly teaches us that. The more experience you have, the more you enjoy the game and fight for your team.”

You were offered a coaching role with the Sports Authority of India. Is coaching your next calling?

Hockey has given me a lot and has given my family a lot of respect. My wish is the day I leave the field as a player, I would like to train youngsters, especially goalkeepers. When I started playing, I was lucky that I had a coach, who did little goalkeeping training. I have seen that at the domestic level, attention to goalkeepers is very little. Only when you go to the national level, you see goalkeeping sessions and see the skill required [to play in that position].

READ: India loses bronze medal match at FIH Junior Women's World Cup

Nowadays, you see how much the match outcome depends on a goalkeeper. There was a time when goalkeepers were decided on their body weight or if you were considered lazy or if you talked less. A goalkeeper gets to see the whole field to help the team and this wasn’t something which was in my game and I had to change that about myself. If I get the opportunity in the future, then I would like to train outfielders as well as goalkeepers.

What are the goals you have set for the year?

First of all, there is the World Cup followed by the Asian Games. We want to win gold! We don’t have gold at the Asian Games so far, we only have silver and bronze. By winning the Asian Games, we can earn direct qualification for the Olympics. World Cup is very important for us. Last time, we lost in the penalty shootout in the quarterfinals. We have worked really hard and we are confident that if we play to our strengths, then we can do well at the World Cup and the Asian Games.

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