“I really like Virat Kohli and the aggression he brings on field. I would love to meet him in person!” says Sushila Chanu. As she utters these words, one can’t help but think of her as another young girl next door infatuated with the biggest star in world cricket.
Even though she giggles while speaking her heart out, with her easy-go demeanor, this twenty-four year old girl hailing from Imphal is not just any ordinary girl - she is now the Captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, a star in her own right and is bearing the weight of the dreams of a nation thirsty for an Olympic medal.
Leadership is not new to Sushila. She led the women’s hockey team to a bronze medal at the 2013 Junior World Cup in Germany. And now travelling to the Rio Olympics, the first time in the last 36 years for the team, she is at the center of attention in a team that has mostly lived in the shadows of their male counterparts.
The last time I went to Imphal was for my sister’s wedding. I mean, of course I wish I could go home, but fitness is more important."
Coming from Manipur, Sushila belongs to a state whose contribution to hockey is quite under-appreciated. From Thoiba Singh and Brijen Singh in the men’s team to Arjuna awardee Tingonleima Chanu and former captain Surjalata Devi in the women’s team, Sushila has quite a legacy to live up to.
“Its almost a year since I have been at home,” sighs Sushila. “The last time I went to Imphal was for my sister’s wedding.” She does her best, however, to appear nonplussed while saying so. “I have a ten-day break now before I leave for Australia. I’ll mostly be traveling to Mumbai; try to work more on my fitness. I mean, of course I wish I could go home, but fitness is more important.” Between her words, one can sense the familial longings of a kid being overruled by the professionalism of a sportswoman who has done this for long. After all, Sushila started playing at the young age of 11 after being egged on by her uncle. She recounts to us memories of her grandmother taking her to the 1999 National Games hosted in Manipur to watch a game of football. The passion for sport ran deep in the family and in the spirit of the liberalism which runs in plenty in the North-East, this passion was gender-neutral. Not all girls, however, are blessed so, and when asked about how her views on the difficulty girls face in playing sports, she explains quite matter of fact that while she understands the concerns of parents and their hesitance, it is only short-sighted to use that as an excuse to prevent participation. Girls need to be encouraged to play sports – by parents and by society.
Coming back to matters closer at hand, with Olympics knocking at the door and recent form being not much to be proud of, the women’s hockey team is looking up to Sushila to make a difference. “Of course, it was a dream to go to Olympics,” she states, “but now that dream is realized and we need to look forward.” Coming back from a knee-injury which took her out of the team for eight weeks, she agrees she has quite a lot to make up for, especially her fitness. With the additional job of being the captain for the Australia tour, there is pressure on her to perform beyond her very best. “I have to lead from the front as well as take care of my team-mates,” she says with her eyes staring at the ground. Her philosophy of captaincy is quite simple however - do not allow the pressure to bear down on one’s game and ensure the same is true for the rest of the team. “I want my girls to give me a 100% when they are on the pitch, nothing more than that.” When asked how she deals with captaincy off the field, her take is to allow her team to enjoy as much as they can. “It helps to be fresh mentally as well,” she affirms. On her own game, she clarifies that captaincy should never affect the way one personally plays. “It’s all about guiding your teammates around you and being a bit serious during team meetings,” she laughs.
The competition Sushila and her compatriots will face, however, is no laughing matter. “If you look at teams like Netherlands and Australia, their players have a huge advantage in terms of height, fitness and sheer physical strength. We are quite behind even now in these departments,” she says frankly. “But, the advantage for us is our skill with the ball and our ability to pass around. That is where we can beat them.” On India’s chances on a medal, she tries to be non-committal, and fairly so. “The idea,” she explains, “is to win as many games as possible and improve our rankings. This will definitely enthuse more women to join the sport.” Her challenges, however, do not end at the teams she faces in the tournament alone. With a massive increase in media coverage for a team which has always been low on public radar, we wondered if that somehow was a distraction for the team. “Certainly not, in fact it’s something we like. It feels good to be able to speak our mind, and it's fantastic to receive support from the media and the public at large.”
Once I retire from the squad, it’ll be wonderful if I can open an academy and coach young kids in Imphal to play hockey."
When asked about the men’s team and their chances, Sushila comments on how much they have improved over the last few years and that they are a serious contender for a medal. We asked in jest how she fancied the chances of the women’s team in a match-up with the men, to which she laughed and said, “I think they will be the only ones to score in such a game. Their approach is a bit more restrained and thoughtful than ours. And of course their drag-flicks are more powerful than ours.” Power game aside, what the women’s team is in dire need of, however, is consistency in their play. Sushila comes clean and admits that they needed to pump up their concentration levels during the matches, ensure they avoid unforced mistakes and be smarter against opponents - like slowing down when playing Australia who favor a fast game. The ideas, it seem, are in the right place. But like the men’s team, it is the need for perfection in execution which has seemed ever so elusive in Indian hockey.
As with any young player, Sushila considers herself fortunate to be able to play with Savita, Ritu Rani and Dipika Thakur, players she saw from afar in younger days but now shares a locker room with. We feel the need to ask her whether she has a life outside of hockey and which other sportspeople does she admire. “I like Virat Kohli and Sania Mirza. Kohli’s game has improved a lot recently and I have become a huge fan of him. I recently watched Sania in a television comedy show and really appreciated the fact she spoke about our sport and supported it. Such gestures matter.”
As we wrap up our fascinating chat, we ask her what she wants to do to promote women’s hockey in our country. “I did think about it once,” she smiles broadly, “Once I retire from the squad, it’ll be wonderful if I can open an academy and coach young kids in Imphal to play hockey.” On any changes she would want to bring to such an academy when compared to her own experiences as a kid, she reveals while her education of the game itself had no lacking, the ability to have a modern-day support staff including fitness coaches and psychologists does bring about a change in approach to game-play and she wishes to instill this in the next generation.
Departing from the interview, we cannot but help feel optimism for the future of women's hockey in India.
Update : This interview was taken on 23rd May, 2016. This article has been updated since then to account for her recent elevation to captain of the national team.