Growing up in a village in Haryana's Sirsa district, Savita Punia didn't care much for sports. Her family sent her to the district headquarters for better schooling; there she enrolled at a sports academy at her grandfather's insistence. "He wanted me to play hockey, and not, say, cricket, because he felt hockey would toughen me up," says the 27-year-old.
That Punia's nerves were well forged in steel was evident during the 2016 Hockey World League in Belgium, where she withstood a barrage of penalty corners against Japan in the last 15 minutes to help India hold on to its 1-0 lead. When the final whistle blew, "it was a moment I'd never forget", for Punia's resilience at the goalpost had helped her team qualify for the Rio Olympics after 36 years.
At Rio, India crashed out early, but it gave Punia an opportunity to regroup for future challenges, the Asia Cup for instance, where she once again proved to be invincible. In a tense shootout against China in the final, she made a stunning save to help India win the match 5-4, earning for herself the goalkeeper of the tournament award and for her team a slot at the 2018 World Cup in London.
Says Rani Rampal, captain of the national women's hockey team, "Punia brings great work ethics to every single training session and plays every match like she's playing for her life. She is calm in pressure situations and has won us many matches with her composure."
With a number of big-ticket events lined up for 2018, Punia would need to bring all that and more to the table. If the past year is any indication, she sure is up for it.
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