Sushila Chanu Pukhrambam remembers lying in a Bangalore hospital bed in 2016. Just a few weeks earlier, she was the captain of the Indian women’s hockey team that competed at a Summer Olympics for the first time since Moscow 1980. But while qualification was a significant achievement, it wasn’t a memorable return in Rio de Janeiro.
The Indians lost four and drew once in their five matches. It was far from the performance the team wanted to put up, despite there being no major expectations of them. It didn’t sit well with Chanu, the skipper. She played those five matches with a heavily strapped right knee having been diagnosed with an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury just months before. She was cleared to play the tournament but surgery followed when she returned home. But as she lay in bed, thinking about what was left for her to do with her future, it was not a difficult decision to make.
“I’m very stubborn. I knew this is not how hockey will end for me,” she said to Scroll.in in a recent interaction. “I never thought that it’s over for me. I knew I’d be playing again. It was just a matter of time.”
And so the day after her surgery, she began doing the exercises she was prescribed by her doctor to strengthen her leg. She was determined during the recovery phase, and aided by diligent physiotherapy sessions, she was back on the field in early 2017.
By recalling that incident though, she subtly puts across a message. The determination to keep going, never backing down, always ready to pick up the pieces after a defeat, an injury, a setback, and keep pushing on... that’s Sushila Chanu.
The ghosts of a horrid Rio 2016 were done away with when the team punched well above their weight and finished fourth at Tokyo 2020. And now she will compete at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
The 30-year-old was a part of the team that finished fourth at Gold Coast four years ago, shortly before a serious ankle injury ruled her out of the World Cup and Asian Games. The absences lost her the captain’s armband, but she has won her position back in the team being ever-present in coach Janneke Schopman’s scheme of things.
Chanu, who has played 214 times for the national team, is a deep-lying midfielder, sitting just in front of the defensive line and makes passes to her attack-centric teammates. But she also pushes forward when the team is chasing games, as she did during the World Cup, trying to win penalty corners with her positional awareness.
“She’s not the most skilful of players, not the most flamboyant, but she has impeccable positioning sense and very good work ethic,” explained former India men’s team captain Viren Rasquinha to Scroll.in.
“Sushila is the work-horse of the team. She’s the one ready to do the dirty work, she will mop-up, make interceptions, tackles, get the ball and pass it on to teammates immediately. She’s probably the most understated player in the team, but she’s a very important one.”
In other words, you put her in the team and you won’t notice her very frequently or she might not dominate the highlights packages. Remove her, however, and you feel something is missing.
One of the lowest phases of her career came in 2018 when she missed the World Cup and Asian Games due to injury. The two tournaments were memorable for India, as they reached the quarterfinals and finished second respectively. For Chanu, however, it was a tough phase. Not playing those two major events was a bitter pill to swallow.
But cut to 2022, she played all six matches for India at the World Cup in Netherlands and Spain underlining her importance in the squad.
And there was an instance in the World Cup a few weeks ago, in a match against New Zealand where she made her presence felt. She’d be rushing back, making a crucial tackle to prevent a counter, then charging up the field and pass the ball into opposition circle to create chances. And then in the 44th minute, with India trailing 3-1, she collected the ball near the 23-metre line and slapped forward a pass that fizzed through the tiny gap between five defenders and two attackers to fall kindly to Lalremsiami, who deflected home.
She enjoys the understated role and has lived by it as well even when away from the hockey pitch. As a junior ticket collector for the Central Railways in Mumbai, she recalled often going along unrecognised as a hockey player.
“I was a junior TC, and I’m a bit short,” she said. “And then I’d be going around to check people’s tickets. So, they’d be a bit confused and not think I was actually the ticket collector.”
Although she does proudly sport the tattoo of the Olympic rings on her bicep – “I got the idea when I saw photos of some swimmers with it,” she said.
Being an international hockey player is her identity. And it started in the fields of Imphal where a young Chanu would enjoy playing sport – any sport.
“In Manipur, there’s a five-day sports festival during Holi and I used to keep playing there as a child, some sport or the other,” she said.
“One day, when I was 11, my uncle told me I should focus only on hockey. It’s not like I liked one game more than the other. If he said boxing, I’d have done that, and I never asked him why hockey. Bas bol diya, toh main gayi khelne.”
She found a spot in the Posterior Hockey Academy, which had also produced 2016 Rio Olympian Kothajit Singh Khadangbam.
In a few years Chanu travelled to Gwalior to improve her craft at the Madhya Pradesh Hockey Academy. She excelled there and broke into the national camp, leading the junior team to a bronze medal at the Junior Women’s World Cup in 2013.
But it was in 2016, at Rio, where Chanu and the rest of the Indian team got their first taste of hockey in the higher echelons of the sport. She admitted the team was not ready.
“We didn’t have that fitness, strength, or mental strength to compete against the top teams then,” she said. “But we got an idea about where we stand and we’ve been improving ever since, working on our weaknesses and now competing with the bigger teams.”
Her rise in the sport has coincided with the growth of the women’s team internationally. “It’s been a difficult journey, but now we’ve started to play against the big teams. I’ve been enjoying it more. Abhi maza aata hai,” she said.
She will again be among the more senior players in a rather young team as they make their way to Birmingham, hoping to win their first medal at the quadrennial event since the silver India won in Melbourne 2006. One of the senior most members, but she asserted with a big laugh, “I don’t think about age at all in this team, in my mind I still feel like I’m 16.”
And she will continue to play that unsung role for her team. Be that silent workhorse in midfield, that curious tactician, that first line of defence... but with the energy of a youngster still raring to deliver. It’s tenacity that she truly excels in. One that has kept her in the game despite all the struggles.