The Indian women's hockey team has still not recovered from the agony of coming close to winning their first medal at the Olympics, but Rani Rampal firmly believes India will be contenders in the sport over the next Olympics cycles.
"All the other teams appreciated us and told us we have a bright future. Maybe we haven't realised yet [the scale of our achievement], it will take some time. We have sacrificed a lot of things -- time, body, mind, emotions, to get here. It will be difficult to recover from this. The future is brighter for our youngsters. They have tasted what it's like to be in the semifinals," Rani said on Saturday.
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India were drawn in a group where they began with matches against Netherlands, Germany and GBR -- all medallists at the previous Games in Rio -- and lost all three. Rani cheekily thanked critics who had written them off after those matches, saying everybody "needs people in their lives to challenge them". She said that the turnaround in form, where they capped off wins over Ireland and South Africa with an unexpected 1-0 win against Australia in their first knockout game in Olympics history, was down to playing without any pressure. "Last five games we played this way because we felt we needed to express ourselves. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We did that as a team. You get energy as a team too when you attack and defend as a team. Everybody played to their strength," she said.
Drag-flicker Gurjit Kaur, who scored four of India's five goals in the knockout stages, felt Tokyo would have helped remove a lot of the bad memories from Rio, where India had finished last among 12 teams, with just a point.
"Rio, I didn't play, but from what I've heard, it wasn't good. It was not a memory to cherish. This was something we will never forget. The lessons, our achievements, the world will remember how we turned it around after losing the first three matches," she said. "People had never watched women's hockey before. People have been waking up at 7 in the morning, even those who had never watched it before. People are very happy. Creating history is not easy. [Finishing] fourth is a big thing."
Rani hoped that India's upward graph would continue under new chief coach Janneke Schopman, expected to take over after Sjoerd Marijne stepped down after Friday's game. "After 2002 [when India won the Commonwealth Games gold in Manchester beating England], we have had a time when people have recognised women's hockey. The team deserves it, because we have put up a fight."
"There are many younger players who may not be aware of what happened in 2002. That had inspired us, but hopefully this will inspire the junior and sub-junior teams now. Because 2028 and 2032 will belong to those players," she said. Rani also spoke of the need to build on this momentum through a busy 2022, when India will be in action at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the Asian Games in Hangzhou. Winning the latter would guarantee qualification for the 2024 Olympics, while India would also need to retain the Asia Cup title, to qualify for next year's World Cup in Spain and Netherlands.
"We have made a mark in world hockey and we wish to continue with that. To the younger generations -- keep dreams and work hard for it. Everything is possible, but you need the passion within. Believe in yourself, even if nobody else does. There will be struggles and obstacles, but you must never give up," said Rani. "One day women's hockey team will be part of the podium, I don't know if I will be part of that."