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‘Flying’ Ritu Rani in pursuit of nation’s dream

Antwerp on Saturday, New Delhi on Monday and back home in Shahbad, Haryana, the same day. The cities may be different, but what’s stayed the same for Ritu Rani, captain of the Indian women’s hockey team, has been the celebrations.

And why not? With a win over Japan to finish fifth at the Hockey World League Semifinals, the eves stand a chance of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics for the first time since 1980.

Speaking from her residence, Rani was elated with her constant giggles on the phone. “None of the team members was even born then (1980), so you can imagine the celebrations after the game on Saturday. We have almost completed the dream. It was good to see so many fans at the airport in Delhi waiting to welcome us with band and garlands so early on Monday morning,” said Rani, who has been captain of the side since 2011 and has more than 200 caps under her belt since her debut in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

“Even at home, the mood has been like a festival. Sweets in the entire locality were distributed the moment we beat Japan,” said Rani of the Haryana Police.

At the start of the tournament, Rani and her side kept a top-four-finish as their goal. “Our initial goal was entering the semifinals. That would have sealed our place for Rio without having to depend on other teams and tournaments. We seemed on course when we entered the quarterfinals but the 0-7 drubbing to Holland changed everything,” Rani said. “It is one thing to lose and another thing to be handed a seven-goal drubbing. Despite the defeat, we still had a match left to play and all that we had to do was win. Each one of us knew that the situation could have been much worse. We could have finished outside the quarterfinals.”

The 23-year-old said there was no special pre-match motivational talk ahead of the Japan game. “It was a do-or-die game for us. Our goal was 60 minutes away. Some of the players knew that this could be their last chance.

Sometimes, this is all the motivation one needs. We didn’t want to return home on the back of a defeat. We did get the start we wanted with Rani Rampal’s goal in the 13th minute. We did try to increase our lead in the next two quarters but the momentum swung their way in the final quarter. We knew they needed just one goal to get back into the game. Not once did we even think of taking the match to extra time or penalties. All that we wanted was to win,” said Rani.

All that Rani and her team can do now is wait for results to go their way. “By October end, we would come to know if we’ve qualified or not. There will be a few camps held before that, but once we know for sure, our preparations for Rio will begin in full swing. Right now, we’re just enjoying the moment and hoping for the best,” she said.

By beating Japan and finishing fifth, India have a shot at the reserve spot that can open up if the same team that has qualified through the Hockey World League Semifinals also wins the continental title. Thus, for India to qualify:

Australia or New Zealand have to win the Oceania Championship in Stratford (Oct 17-25)

Great Britain, The Netherlands or Germany have to win the European Championship in London (Aug 21-30)

Argentina or USA have to win the Pan American Championship in Toronto (Jul 13-24)