A couple of years ago, Bollywood movie MS Dhoni: The Untold Story – chronicling the life of the Indian cricket captain's journey from a ticket-checker at Kharagpur station to the pinnacle of his sport – was the blockbuster of the year. Not many sports fans would know, another Indian sportsperson has made a similar journey the path of which will lead to the Commonwealth Games next week.
Much like her Indian cricket counterpart, Sushila Chanu inspects tickets along the Central and Harbour lines of Mumbai’s suburban railway system. She has a more important task at hand though. The half back of the Indian women’s hockey team will be expected to play a key role as her side bids to become the first Indian team to claim the Commonwealth hockey gold since the 2002 Games – an achievement that was immortalized in the Shah Rukh Khan film Chak De India.
It was perhaps inevitable that Chanu would be a sportsperson. Sport has long been considered a passage to a better life for girls in Manipur. It was something that could land her a job, make her realise a long-cherished dream – her father, a truck driver, retiring and never taking those long risky drives on the accident-prone highway that connects Manipur and Meghalaya. There were sporting genes in place already too as Sushila’s grandfather was reknowned as a polo player in Manipur.
Hockey wasn’t Sushila’s first passion. That was football. Her earliest memory of sport she says was when she went to watch a football match during the 1999 National Games that were hosted in Manipur. It was hockey that eventually won out. The fact that state mate Suraj Lata Devi was the captain of the gold medal winning Indian team at the 2002 CWG undoubtedly contributed to Sushila picking up her first hockey stick in aged 11.
It was a decision that almost ended too soon. At her first big contest, she would be heartbroken when she did not make it through to the Manipur sub-juniors trials for the North-East sports festival tournament a year later. Having been put on standby she quit the sport. Luckily her seniors convinced her otherwise. “I quit hockey, only for the seniors and coaches to come to my house and convince my parents that I should continue playing hockey,” she says.
A move to the Sports Authority of India Academy in Gwalior would be the turning point in her life. By the time she was 20, Chanu would make her senior debut for India. But she still had a year left in the juniors and that’s where she would first come into the spotlight. “After playing some tournaments with the senior team, we were told that some of us would go for the junior World Cup in Germany. I expected to see my name there, but when I saw that I had been made captain, I was overjoyed.” She says.
The 2013 tournament was historic, as Chanu led India to its first ever medal – a bronze. Chanu would only cement her place in the squad. A bronze at the Asian Games in 2014 was followed by the honor of being named captain of the senior team that qualified for the Olympics after a gap of 36 years. While the games were disappointing, with India failing to win a game, Chanu came back newly aware of the standard India were up against.
That determination was put to the test when she underwent a surgery following a knee injury and was out of action for nearly a year. Since her return to the field in May last year, Chanu has carried on where she has left off. With 133 caps, much is riding on her performance. If indeed she can inspire India to a gold medal, it’s not hard to imagine there would be enough inspiration for another epic to be committed to celluloid.