Savita Punia: No reason to believe I got Arjuna Award late

Savita became only the third woman goalkeeper to be conferred the award, after Tingongleima Chanu and Helen Mary, and the first in 14 years.

With more than 150 international caps, Savita has been the team’s wall.   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

Hidden behind a helmet and weighed down by almost 18-20 kg of protective gear, looking like a machine but expected to move like a sprinter, it is often a struggle to recognise a hockey goalkeeper without the gear.

In the case of Savita Punia, the lack of acknowledgement has continued for years. Things though might just change after being named for the Arjuna Award this year.

Savita became only the third woman goalkeeper to be conferred the award, after Tingongleima Chanu and Helen Mary, and the first in 14 years.

Among the senior most players in the current side, Savita had been expected to get the honour much earlier but the 28-year old doesn’t feel so.

“This was the first time I had applied, that too after being insisted on by coach Bharat Chhetri, so I have no reason to believe I got it late. I felt there were many senior players who should get it before me. Maybe, I was late in applying so if anyone has to be blamed, it should be me,” Savita laughs when asked about her first reaction.

She is not on social media, doesn’t bother with interactions unless compelled and, by own admission, loves the anonymity that the helmet provides.

“I am happy and secure behind my helmet, I do not like the spotlight, it makes me nervous,” she says.

The first time she actually thought she could apply was after Rani Rampal got it in 2016.

“From our current group she is the first one and it made us all very proud. That’s when the rest of us even thought of trying for it,” she says.

For those who follow Indian women’s hockey, however, Savita has been the team’s wall from much before.

With more than 150 international caps, instrumental in India qualifying for the Rio Olympics, winning the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy, the 2017 Asia Cup and bronze in the 2013 edition, bronze at the 2014 Asiad and silver in 2018 – every medal for the team in the last five years has owed a lot to the security Savita provides under the bar.

And yet the girl, who was named in Forbes India’s 30-under-30 list for 2018, herself remains without the financial security of a job.

Now, however, there are indications that the wait might finally be over with Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore taking personal interest in the matter.

“During the felicitation after the Asian Games, he himself sought me out, introduced me to senior officials and told them to work out a solution at the earliest. He has stayed in touch and that gives me hope,” Savita revealed.

A formal letter is likely to be issued soon.

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