The captain of India's women’s hockey team, Rani Rampal, speaks exclusively to Tokyo 2020 on how fitness changed the dynamics of the team and what she has learnt since their defeat at Rio 2016.
'To qualify for Tokyo at home was a big thing’
Since making their debut at the 1980 Moscow Olympics - where they finished fourth - the Indian women’s hockey team had to wait another 36 years to make their Olympic return.
Their dream finally came true when they qualified for Rio 2016, but their journey doesn't end there.
The Indian eves successfully qualified for Tokyo 2020 - their second consecutive Olympics - after defeating the USA 6-5 on aggregate at the FIH Qualifiers in 2019.
"To qualify for the second consecutive Olympics is a big thing," Rani told Tokyo 2020.
The moment, however, took on even greater significance: the team achieved their goal in front of their home crowd in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, a city known for its love for hockey.
"We qualified in our country in Bhubaneshwar. It was a [monumental] achievement. Bhubaneshwar is a city where people are crazy about hockey, and to be able to play there and qualify for the Summer Games was a big thing for us. We enjoyed our experience of playing there," she explained.
Not only this, but the athlete who was a recent recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award - the highest sporting honor in the country - was the one who scored the winning goal.
"To be able to qualify for the Games in our country, and to be the one to score the winning goal, it feels great. We were happy that we have qualified for the Olympics in Tokyo," Rani said with a smile of her face.
'A lot changed in past five years'
History is witness to the fact that many teams over the years, in various sports, have bounced back after facing almost certain failure in their quest to become champions.
That seemed to be the script that followed the India women’s hockey team as well.
For Rani, the improvement in form was also reflected in the increased attention they faced on social media.
"A lot of changes have come in the women's [India] hockey in the past four to five years," she explained.
"Earlier, in our country, not many people used to follow us, they didn't use to bother to watch our games. But now, things have changed - thanks to the emergence of social media, people have started following us."
But, there was something else that changed the dynamics of the women’s team.
"The biggest change that has come in the women's hockey is regarding fitness. Earlier, we had that fear in our mind, or you can say, we used to remain insecure about the fitness levels when we used to stand or play against the European teams."
Today the scenario has changed completely. We now have improved a lot and we now are confident while facing anyone on the field.
'Blend of youth and experience make our team special'
Balance – it’s that one word; one of the key factors which plays a huge role in shaping a team and putting them on a road to glory.
However, in Rani Rampal’s team, it was a combination of fitness and coaching style that played a huge role in the improvement of the side - both by working on the individual and the team as a whole.
"Our team has improved by leaps and bounds in the past four to five years," Rampal explained. "In our team, we have a balance of senior players and juniors, and also our coaching staff have played an incredible role in the development of our team.
"If I talk about our team's scientific advisor, he played a huge role in improving the fitness levels of the girls in our team. Not only he worked on each of the players individually, but he also helped us improve as a team as well.
"You know, nowadays, hockey has become a fast-paced game, and our fitness levels have to be on par with other teams, only then we can think of doing well at the top level."
As well as the coaching team, Rampal credits both Hockey India and the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for providing the team with a more competitive schedule, which not only gave the team increased exposure but also ensured the players developed as a team with each passing day.
As a consequence, the team could reach their current high standards.
"It was because of them that we got the exposure of playing more against the top teams which eventually helped us get better at our game," Rampal explained.
"We have shown massive improvements and we are ready for the bigger challenges."
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‘Rio Games gave us an experience to remember’
The Indian women’s hockey team finished last in their group at Rio 2016, losing four and drawing one of their five matches.
However, despite not returning with a medal, they brought home experience and Rampal feels the team will learn from their mistakes when they take the field next year in Tokyo.
"2016 Rio Games was our first Olympic experience, and I must say we learnt a lot," she said. "The mistakes that we had made in Rio, we will try and not repeat those at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
"This time around also, we have some of the players in our team that were part of the Olympics four years back. They now have the experience under their belt and they are ready to pass it on to the youngsters.
"This time, a lot of things will be taken into account - how our experienced players remain cool during tense hours, and how are they handling the situation when the chips are down? Also, during training, you would know where you are lagging behind, and then you can work on that beforehand and try and avoid making similar mistakes during the Games time."
Rampal, who was born in Haryana, made her international debut when she was just 15 and understands the importance of having senior players in the team, on the biggest stage of them all.
"We have some of the same players from the Rio squad in our team, and they can help the youngsters during the Olympics."
"There could be a possibility that the youngsters might feel a bit nervous during the Games, and the seniors could jump in, put their hands on their shoulders and say, 'hey, relax, it's normal. [Forget it's the] Olympics, just treat it like another game and then perform'."
We learnt that we don't have to rush into the Olympic Games.
We don't have to think too much, we don't have to put pressure on ourselves.
We have to take it game by game.
'We have a belief that we will do well'
Four years since finishing last at Rio 2016, this India women’s hockey team is prepared to take on anyone next year in Tokyo.
As the team leader, Rampal has seen her players grow individually and become better players. She feels there is strong confidence in the team, and they can better their past results this time around.
"Our team is pretty good," she explained. "We have the belief in our team that we will do very well at the Games next year.
"Our first target would be to reach the quarter finals because [at that point] the tournament starts, and then it's anyone's day - the one who will play better, perform better, utilise their chances will win.
"Our first tournament [is prior to the quarter finals]. We have to focus on that first, and after that, we will take the second step and see how we can reach the semis and then eventually the finals."
You can follow Rani Rampal and the Indian women's hockey team at Tokyo 2020. Their first match, against Netherlands at the Oi Hockey Stadium, is on Saturday 24 July at 18:30 JST.