For Sumitra Nayak, rugby is life

From Shanty Slums to becoming the Rugby Rani (Queen), Sumitra Nayak from Odisha’s Jajpur district has come a long way in carving a niche for herself and her family.

Sumitra Nayak, the skipper of the Under-18 India women’s rugby team.   -  Special Arrangement

Seventeen-year-old Sumitra Nayak keeps checking the watch every now and then, hoping time to trickle by fast. It is a Sunday morning and while most of the players enjoy the only rest day in a week, she is already missing rugby — the sport on which she literally survives.

“I hate Sundays because there is no practice on that day. Rugby is the only identity in my life. I can’t imagine a day without it. Every day we practice in the morning and evening, but Sunday is a rest day and is boring,” says Sumitra, the skipper of the Under-18 India women’s rugby team.

Sitting in her hostel called Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (K.I.S.S.) in Bhubaneswar, which provides accommodation, food and education to more than 25,000 tribal students free of cost, she reveals her tryst with rugby, as tears start rolling down her cheeks.

“I was born in Odisha’s Jajpur district. We lived under abject poverty, barely surviving on two-square meals a day. My father, a drunkard, used to return home late and often abuse my mother and beat her. When she could not bear any more, she brought my siblings and me to Bhubaneswar. I was only four years old at that time,” Sumitra reminisces.

In a new city, with a lifestyle much different than in her village, Sumitra’s mother Gayatri, initially struggled for a job. Unable to find any, she was forced to work as a maid for long hours, in order to provide basic facilities to her children.

While working at one of the houses, Gayatri learnt about K.I.S.S. and its facilities, and enrolled Sumitra in 2008, without a second thought.

“It was difficult to pay for Sumitra’s education. When I heard about this free private organisation, I thought of enrolling her so that she would at least be educated and get food every day. Sport was a distant thought then. The founder of K.I.S.S., Dr. Achyuta Samanta, a social activist, was kind enough to grant her a seat and took interest in recognising her talent.”

Sumitra was instantly drawn to a ‘strange game,’ which her friends informed was called ‘rugby,’ and soon the girl from the slums was very interested in the sport.

“It was love at first sight with rugby for me. The most intriguing part of the whole sport was the oval-shaped ball, which looked like an egg to me. In fact, I used to call it ‘egg ball,’” she laughs off.

“Though I loved physical sports, I couldn’t play any games in the village, because girls were not given that freedom. Even if I showed interest, the villagers would comment that sport is not for girls. But when I got the chance to play in K.I.S.S., I decided to give it all,” she says.

Fortunately for Sumitra, she had the backing of her mother, who asked her to break the notions of the society and follow her heart.

“I had a difficult life and like every mother, I wanted my daughter not to face situations that I had to. So, I supported her in all her decisions. As far as rugby is concerned, I remember, I had once been to her school for the parents meeting and saw sports children being felicitated. So, I told Sumitra that I wish people would recognise me as a sports star’s mother someday,” says her mother.

Sumitra started rugby practice in 2009, but found it difficult to master the skills. Not ready to back off, she then turned to her coach Rudrakesh Jena and walked the extra mile to become a credible player. In 2012, she played her first State match. Two years later, she participated in the U-13 Women’s Rugby World Cup, followed by the National Championship and the National School Games. She helped her team clinch bronze medal in the Asian Girls Rugby Sevens (U-18) held in Dubai last year.

“I think my coach Nasser (Hussain) sir liked my leadership quality and so I was chosen the skipper. It was a pleasant surprise,” says Sumitra, who is currently pursuing graduation in Political Science Honours from the same institute and is fondly called as ‘Rugby Rani (queen)’ by Dr. Achyuta Samanta.

Sumitra’s unbending attitude towards troubles became an inspiration and last year she was invited to deliver a Ted Talk in Pune and was introduced as a ‘dreamer, achiever and a trend setter.’

“When I went to Pune, I clearly remember, everyone introduced me as captain of the Rugby team. It was the most cherished moment of my life. Never had I imagined, people outside my neighbourhood, would recognise me. I am forever indebted to Samanta sir for his kindness.”

On how life has changed post Rugby, Sumitra says, “I don’t know if my life has changed. I rather feel, rugby has given meaning to my life. In fact, for me, rugby is life.”

Besides Rugby, Sumitra loves writing poetry in Odia and watches different sports. “Hockey is a sport I love, but only second to rugby,” she adds quickly.

“We go to Kalinga Stadium to watch Hockey India League every year and my favourite is that bald foreign player from Kalinga Lancers. He seems to be a fun person,” she says referring to Glenn Turner.

For the future, without a shade of doubt, she wants to keep playing rugby and wants to be known as the best player in the scrum position.

“I wish to be recognised as one of the best players and win laurels for my country. This is the only way I can give back to the sport, which has given me a life,” she signs off, as she gives another glance to the watch.