“Being a goalkeeper is like being the guy in the military who makes the bombs — one mistake and everyone gets blown up.” — Artur Boruc, Polish goalkeeper
There have been countless instances when Rajani Etimarpu saved the entire team from getting blown away. Hailing from a small village in Chittoor district, she is the only player from Andhra Pradesh to be part of the current Indian women’s hockey team. The winner of the best goalkeeper award at the 2013 Asian Champions Trophy has played a crucial role in the overall success of the team in recent years.
In 2016, the team won the Asian Champions Trophy and qualified for the Olympics after 36 years. In 2017, they won the Asia Cup by defeating China in the finals. In a chat with the 27-year-old, we find out about her height being the reason for her playing as a goalkeeper, her Olympics experience and future plans…
How did you start playing hockey?
I belong to a small village called Yerravaripalem, where I studied at a government school. When I was in 8th standard, I used to play volleyball during PT classes despite never being interested in the sport, because playing one sport was compulsory. At that time, a zonal hockey tournament was going on and our team needed a goalkeeper. I got selected only because I was tall. I didn’t know much about hockey but that is how my journey began.
What are the struggles you faced during your younger days?
My father was a carpenter and my mother a housewife. We were three sisters and a brother and were not well off financially. Despite all this, my parents always supported me and tried their best to fulfill every wish of mine. I used to travel a lot for national camps and there were times when the ticket wouldn’t get confirmed, and I had to travel on my wait-listed ticket.
When did you start playing for the Indian team?
I played my first tournament in New Zealand in 2009. After that, I played in the Asian Championship Trophy, Commonwealth Games, Asian Cup and the Summer Games. I got injured in 2014, but came back in 2015.
How was the Rio Olympics experience?
It was quite an honor for me to be a part of the team which qualified after 36 years. We got eliminated quickly, but it was an amazing experience to play against the top teams of the world.
What are some challenges you face as a goalkeeper?
Being a goalkeeper comes with a lot of pressure and responsibilities. One mistake from you results in a goal. The entire team can be forgiven for their mistakes, but a goalkeeper simply cannot.
Who is the one person who always supported you through thick and thin?
My mother, who I share everything with. She can easily understand by hearing my voice if I am fine or not. She even motivates me during my bad phase.
What has been your most memorable moment so far?
Qualifying for the Olympics and winning the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy by defeating China 2-1 in the final.
What role has the Andhra Pradesh government played in your career?
The support has been quite positive from the government and our honorable CM Sri Nara Chandrababu Naidu. After the Rio Olympics, I was rewarded with cash prizes, allotted land and a job in Indian Railways. This treatment has been like a dream come true and now, I am more inspired than ever to do well for my team.
At one time, hockey was the most popular sport in the country, but there has been a decline in viewership in recent years. How do you think hockey can be made more popular?
Popularity can be increased only if we win more tournaments. Both the men’s and women’s teams are improving, and we plan on performing to our very best at the Asian Games and the World Cup.
What are your future plans?
I just want to keep improving myself. I have the Asian Games and World Cup lined up this year, and I want to make sure my team performs well. In the long run, I want to open an academy which will identify sporting talent from rural areas. As I am also a board member of Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh, it is essential that I must help the future generation.
Any message you would like to give to the younger generation?
My messages won’t help, but in the future, my academy will surely do. Kids in rural areas, especially girls, don’t get the proper facilities and support. My academy will cater to all those needs and help them in improving their respective sports.