Satish Sharma

Sundargarh district, the hockey hotbed in Odisha, has given another fabulous player named Sunelita Toppo to the Indian women hockey team. The 17-year-old midfielder made her debut for the Indian Women’s Hockey Team on 3rd February against China in the FIH Hockey Pro League 2023-24 at Bhubaneswar. Just a year ago she broke into the junior team and with her impressive performances now she has been catapulted to the senior team. Abraham Kispotta, In charge of STC – Sundargarh says,” Sunelita’s selection in the senior team has filled us with pride. We feel great and wish her a great future.”

Sunelita is a prime example of how young athletes can fulfil their potential despite financial limitations with dedication and determination. Expressing her elation over her promotion to the senior team in such a short time which provided her a chance to play in front of the home crowd said, “.Initially, I couldn’t believe that I had made the cut for the squad participating in the FIH Hockey Pro League 2023/24 in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela. I was very excited with the feeling that I would be playing in front of my friends and family members. I was little nervous also to play my first match against China. I spoke with senior players they advised me not to over think, to play freely, and to enjoy this special occasion”.

Sunelita hails from a small village Kukuda in Sundargarh district, which has produced half a dozen international players therefore; it was natural for her to pick up the hockey stick at the very tender age.

Domnique Toppo, a dedicated hockey coach of Kukuda village helped Sunelita to learn the basics of the sport informs, “Sunelita is good in study also so her parents wanted her to focus on study only.  But Sunelita’s strong desire to play hockey changed parent’s mindset and they reluctantly allowed her to play. Now they are happy to see their daughter representing the country. She showed promise in the sport which paved her selection at STC Sundargarh.” Although it was challenging to continue with hockey due to financial limitations, her never-say-die spirit and family support helped her get admission into the SAI Training Centre (STC) in Sundargarh in 2018.

After getting into STC, there was no looking back for Sunelita.  She impressed all with her consistent good performances in every tournament she got the opportunity to play.  Recognising her immense talent STC authorities shifted her to the National Centre of Excellence, Bengaluru in 2021. Sunelita’s first coach P K Sarangi says,” When she joined STC, Sundargarh we noticed special talent in her. She was always eager to learn, strive for perfection. Moreover she is a very energetic and confident girl. At such a young age she has become part of senior team is itself a testimony of her ability.”

She represented Odisha in national games in 2022 held in Gujrat and following her impressive performances she was selected for the junior national camp.  She continued to work hard and strive for perfection at the camp which led to her selection for the national junior team which toured the South Africa in February 2023.  Later when the team claimed its maiden title in the Women’s Junior Asia Cup in June month played in Japan, which ultimately helped her to get into Senior Women National Coaching Camp. She has also represented India junior team in 4 nation tournament in Germany and Junior World Cup in Chile.

Indian women team has failed to qualify for Paris Olympics but this has not affected Sunelita to dream big. On being asked about her ultimate goal as a professional player, Sunelita said, “I want to play in the Olympics and win a medal for my country.” Age is certainly on her side so she can think of 2028 or even 2032 Olympics.

The author is a Sr. Sports Journalist from Rourkela, India. Views are personal