Savita Punia: From battling eve-teasers in the bus to guarding India’s goal-post at the Tokyo Olympics

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India’s women’s team goalkeeper Savita Punia was in tears after the final whistle. She was inconsolable after India lost a hard-fought bronze play-off match 3-4 against the Rio Olympics gold medallist Great Britain on Thursday.

The Indian goalkeeper has made at least a dozen saves in an edge-of-the-seat play-off match, but Indian women’s hockey team’s dream of securing its maiden Olympic medal remained unfulfilled.

The 31-year-old journey from Jodhkan village in Haryana’s Sirsa village to one of the finest women’s goalkeepers in the world is incredible.

Before Savita, no one among the Punias had ever taken up any kind of sport as a career.

It all started when Ranjeet Punia, grandfather of Savita, had once been to Delhi to watch a hockey match and liked the sport instantly. After coming back to Jodhkan, he encouraged his granddaughter to play the sport.

Savita Punia (left) with her grandfather Ranjeet Punia (Courtesy: India Today)

“Initially, Savita used to hate it; not because she didn’t like the game, but because of the amount of the travelling she had to do. The to and fro journey from the academy to our home was quite difficult,” Savita’s father, Mohender Punia told IndiaToday.In in an exclusive interview.

Savita used to travel 30 kilometres from Jodhkan village to Maharaja Agrasain Girls Senior Secondary School in Sirsa town to hone her hockey skills six times a week. The school was the only place near her village where there were hockey coaches as well as infrastructure.

“She wasn’t allowed to keep her kit bag inside the bus. The bus conductor would ask her to put the kit bag on the top of the bus; and Savita was very particular about her kit bag, she and her kit bag were inseparable. So sometimes she even had to sit on the roof of the bus and travel those 60 kilometres,” recalls Mohender.

During her early days, Savita Punia faced one of the worst problems that plagues the country eve-teasing.

“She used to tell us after coming back home from her practice, ‘papa, ladke chedte hai bus mein (boys tease me in the bus)’,” said Mohender Punia.

“But these things only made her stronger. Meri beti ka desh ke liye har performance un ladko ke muh par tamacha hai (Every performance of my daughter for the country is a slap on the face of those boys),” he added.

In 2007, Savita was picked for her maiden national camp in Lucknow. She got her first call up to the Indian team in 2008. She, however, had to wait till 2011 to play her first match for the country.

At the 2014 Incheon Asiad, she made a name for herself with some exemplary performances under the bar as India won bronze. Her towering presence in the goal has played a pivotal role in India’s landmark victories in recent years. Savita was awarded the ‘goalkeeper of the tournament’ when India won the 2017 Asia Cup in November, last year. India defeated China 5-4 in a thrilling penalty shootout to win the tournament after 13 years.

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