Goals. We all love them. Ask any kid about their favourite footballer, and it is likely to be either Ronaldo or Messi. But, when it comes to defenders, it is a totally different scenario.
Most players become a defender by accident, and Indian women’s hockey player Sunita Lakra’s story is also no different.
Hailing from Rourkela, Sunita Lakra’s tryst with hockey began when she was 15 years of age. The 25-year-old was forced into hockey by the family, but she never thought it would become the love of her life.
“It was my family that forced me to play hockey. I had not thought much about playing hockey for the national team back then, “she says, about how she got into hockey.
With a smile, she confesses that she has no idea why the family wanted her to play hockey. After all, most of her villagers play football. But, once she got into it, there was no stopping her.
“I am from Odisha, Rourkela and first I got selected from my school. Then I got into the hostel, from there I played the Nehru Cup and got selected into the national camp,” the 25-year-old says.
Her rise to the national team was fast, and she went on to make her debut in 2009. The Odisha lass became the backbone of the Indian hockey team’s defence quickly and then represented India at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, where India won bronze by defeating Japan. A year later, she helped India secure top spot in the women’s Hockey World League Round 2. Her biggest achievement came in August last year as the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years.
“I am very happy about it. Never thought that I would be able to play in the Olympics” says Sunita when asked about the achievement.
But, the Olympics will be a different test for the young team. The team is drawn in a tough group containing Argentina, Australia, USA, Japan and Great Britain, all teams which are above India in the FIH rankings. Although it will be tough, Sunita believes that India will give their all at the Olympics.
“We have played a few matches against Australia and it has been good. So we will try our best in the Olympics. We have a really good chance against USA. We have already beaten Japan twice in the Asian Games. Against Australia also we can do better, “says the Odisha player.
Senior and junior players are together in this team.”
The preparation for the quadrennial event started early, and Hockey India brought back former chief coach Neil Hawgood with Rio in mind. Camps and preparatory tournaments also followed with India travelling to New Zealand, England, and Australia for tours and tournaments. When asked about the preparations for Rio, Sunita seemed happy with the way things are progressing.
“Everyone is practising hard. We are also working hard on our running. Defenders and forwards have different routine of training. We do shooting practice. We also work on penalty corner skills, both in attacking a penalty corner and defending one. We are working really hard and are giving the best on the field,” says Sunita.
After regularly being part of the national team in the last six years, Sunita is one of the most-experienced players in the squad. Although the squad is relatively young, she is happy with the mix between youth and experience.
“Senior and junior players are together in this team.”
The defender also spoke about the facilities in the national camp and says that both senior and junior level players are getting the same facilities.
“I was dropped from the camp in 2009, then I came back in 2013. The facilities have improved a lot, and training also has developed. The whole coaching staff are taking good care of us. When I started, I did not have much idea about the facilities. After coming here (national camp), we are getting all kind of facilities. Now all sets of players, both in national level and junior level, are getting the same set of facilities,” says the 25-year-old.
A fan of football superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, Sunita tells us that she follows their game closely and wants more hockey clubs at the local level to improve the sport in the country.
“I think we need more clubs like in foreign countries, importantly at the local level. If we win medals then it will inspire others to play Hockey,” says Sunita.
The 25-year-old will head to her home before leaving for the Olympics to see her parents, brothers and sisters. Although the sport keeps her away from the family, Sunita says that she would definitely like to go into coaching, if she gets an opportunity after her playing career.
“I haven’t thought about it yet. If I get an opportunity, then I would definitely like to help,” she says as we wrap up the interview.