Savita Punia. Photo: Getty Images
Savita Punia. Photo: Getty Images

Savita Punia: India’s lady in shining armour

Savita Punia is currently training in the national camp in Bengaluru under goalkeeping coach Bharat Chettri, and gearing up for the big year ahead

Savita Punia’s goalkeeping armour has become her identity.

The Indian women’s hockey team is heading into an important season—the Commonwealth Games (4-15 April), the World Cup (July-August) and the Asian Games (August)—and Punia, a veteran of 148 games, will take pride of place under the bar.

But there was a time when the goalkeeping kit was a heavy burden for her—literally.

“It used to weigh about 20kg then," says Punia, 27, who is from Jodhkan village in Sirsa, Haryana. “I had to travel on the crowded roadways in Haryana from hostel to home (about a 2-hour journey) as a teenager. I used to feel terrible about it."

The burden seemed heavier since Punia wasn’t really fond of the game to start with. Her mother was diagnosed with early arthritis in 2001, and, two years later, when Punia was 13, the family decided to send her to the Maharaja Agrasain School in Sirsa. Hockey was one of the sports offered there and her grandfather, Mahinder Singh, asked her to pursue it.

“Even on television, I would never let my family put on the sports channel," she recalls. “I didn’t enjoy it much in the beginning and used to make excuses to get out of sessions or try and come home at least on weekends. I was made to keep goal only because I was tall.

“Then, the journey from the hostel to home was really difficult. At that time, buses in Haryana didn’t have the provision to stow such bulky kit bags. They never used to let me keep it inside. They would ask me to put in on the luggage carrier on top of the bus.

“I used to tell my father that I don’t want to play. But he had bought me the goalkeeper’s kit even when he couldn’t really afford it. So I felt like I had to repay my family’s faith."

The support of her progressive grandfather, originally from Rajasthan, also meant that she escaped the social pressures that come with being a female athlete in India, especially in a patriarchal state like Haryana.

Despite the late start to her athletic career, Punia was quick to make up time. In 2007, less than five years since her initiation into the sport, she was in the national camp. A year later, she made the squad for her first international tour: a four-nation event in the Netherlands and Germany.

But making it to the playing 11 was difficult—she had to wait till 2011 to make her senior international debut.

“Of the first 60-odd matches, I must have played in one or two and spent the rest on the bench," she says. “It was upsetting but I had to will myself to work hard and make sure that I was in good condition and form when I did get a chance."

She first made a splash at the Women’s Asia Cup in 2013 and was part of the bronze-winning team at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. She has had a role in some of India’s landmark victories in recent years: Her excellent showing at the FIH Hockey World League in Belgium in 2015 helped India qualify for the Olympics (Rio 2016) for the first time in 36 years. Punia was the centre of attention when India won the 2017 Asia Cup, and thus secured a berth for this year’s World Cup.

India beat China 5-4 in a shoot-out in the Asia Cup final in November to clinch the tournament after 13 years. Declared the goalkeeper of the tournament, she made the match-winning save as she stopped a shot from China’s Liang Meiyu.

“As a team, we watch motivational videos before every tournament," says Punia, “and every time, right at the end, they show the Asian Cup shoot-out. There is a sense of pride. The role of a goalkeeper has become crucial since so many matches are decided on the shoot-out."

She is currently training at the national camp in Bengaluru under goalkeeping coach Bharat Chettri, a former India player, and gearing up for the big year ahead. Technological advances mean hockey kits are much lighter now—about 8-10kg—but the weight of responsibility remains.

“There was a time when I used to be scared of the hockey ball," recalls Punia, who now flies into a challenge, her resolve stronger than her armour.

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