STICKING TOGETHER

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With every member bringing a different piece to the table, the all-Punjabi Craigieburn Falcons Women’s team is working its way to prominence

In the satellite suburb of Craigieburn just outside of Melbourne, one cannot miss the busy and well-kept hockey field at 450 Grand Blvd where girls and boys, men and women from the Punjabi community are proud to be a member of the Craigieburn Falcons club. This hockey club, which initially started off as an only men’s team, now seems to be a talent factory with the creation of the women’s team.

The person who steers the women’s team is Bhupinder Kaur, a former Indian hockey professional, whose chance visit to Craigieburn in 2015 rekindled her passion for hockey which had been put on the backburner for 15 years.

Bhupinder grew up in Punjab, India, where she used to watch her siblings play hockey until one fine day when the physical education teacher at school, noticing her enthusiasm, took her under her wings. She was the only student to accompany her teacher to state trials. Hockey became Bhupinder’s passion. She would wake up every day at 4 am and ride 12 km on her bicycle for training. She trained under renowned names such as Geeta Biswas, former women’s hockey Olympian and international umpire, Ashok Kumar, another former Indian professional and son of the hockey legend Dhyan Chand, to name a few.

With such quality training, Bhupinder joined the Air India Hockey Club playing professional hockey for them for six years. She also played in many international invitational tournaments totalling to about 45 to 50 tournaments in 15 years before she left for New Zealand and later on to Australia following marriage.

In 2015, Bhupinder and her family were on a chance visit to Melbourne from Sydney when driving around Craigieburn she noticed the banner of a hockey club coming up. “That was it. I told my husband we are not moving anywhere, we are buying a house somewhere here. I realised how much I missed hockey,” she says with a laugh.

The move to Craigieburn eventuated. While the hockey ground was still under construction, Bhupinder started training under 10s and 12s in another club for a short time. Finally, when the Craigieburn Falcons men’s hockey team was created in 2017, she was asked to train boys under 14. Later, the club asked her ‘why not start a women’s team’.

Bhupinder realised this was not an easy ask. “For most women in the Indian community, children and family are priorities and this was going to be a big task. But we thought ‘let’s just give it a try’.”

At first, Bhupinder approached every girl or woman who she saw on the ground. Her point was, if you are looking for some fitness, why not join hockey? The persistence paid off and before she knew, there were a lot of women and young girls signing up to join the training.

RARING TO GO. From Left: Parminder Kaur, Jatinder Kaur, Sunita Sharma

Craigieburn Falcons Women’s team was thus set up last year. Everyone brings a different piece to the table. The team has different age range and an interesting make up of students, teachers, doctors and nurses all connected by their new-found love for hockey. Every Wednesdays and Sundays, the team meets up for practice.

Take Jiwanjot Kaur, a full-time doctor, who had stopped playing sports after Year 9 right through her university days until someone mentioned about a hockey club in her vicinity. She decided to pick up the sticks on the first visit itself. She joined last year half-way through and as a centre forward and right in player, her main role is to move the ball from the half line to the forward and, hopefully, score goals.

Despite her busy schedule working at Northern Hospital, Jiwanjot finds time for hockey. “I guess it’s just a priority thing. I really enjoy it so it’s something I look forward to. When something makes you happy or give you great enjoyment you make time for it,” says adding, “My whole family (dad and two brothers), except for my mum, plays too.”

Jiwanjot also says that the advantage of being in an all Punjabi-team is the fact that one can thrive off the social aspect of the club. “But not everyone is like that, of course. There are some people who come purely for hockey and some like me come for that sense of community that is hard to find in a place like Australia.” She cites the example of going to matches and being cheered on by supporters screaming out in Punjabi instilling a sense of kinship and camaraderie.

For Amandeep Kaur, a primary school teacher, the initiation came through her daughter who was already playing basketball. When Bhupinder approached her daughter to try hockey, Amandeep ended up being a part of the team. “Now my whole family including my son play hockey and my husband is very supportive,” says Amandeep who moved to Australia from Punjab ten years ago.

Also, age is definitely not a barrier, believes Amandeep, if you are passionate about anything.

If anything, the field is the arena where most of these women relieve the stress involved with their jobs with the added bonus of being able to spend time with family as most of them have children or husbands practising too.

“In teaching there is lot of pressure, so playing hockey is a mental stress buster. You also feel physically healthy. And I am happy to spend lots of time with my kids here because both of them are in the club. It is making me understand them better and become their friends,” says Amandeep, who plays a right half-back.

Agrees Gurvinder Kaur, who joined the club after a friend told her about the quality training imparted. “Initially it was hard, my body didn’t have the stamina to play a lot. Now I can feel the change in my body, I have the stamina to run and sprint,” says Gurvinder who works full time in Hume City Council. She came to Australia in 2008 on a spouse visa. “Initially I used to miss India a lot but with the club I feel I am now part of one big family.”

Teacher Sunita Sharma was roped in by her friend Gurvinder who asked her to come play hockey for “time pass”. To her surprise, Sunita liked the trainings. “On Wednesdays, we used to run and exercise and I thought that was not bad. Then on Sundays, we started learning how to hit the balls, understand the styles of hitting and other basic rules of hockey. We started getting familiar with one thing at a time and the environment was very supportive.”

After 14 years in Australia, Sunita has found a sport that gives her joy on all fronts – from spending quality time with her children on field to sharing space with people ‘who speak the same language, talk the same problems, same food, same culture and traditions’.

For Year 12 students Shubseerat Kaur and Taniyal Gill, both former basketball players, the jump to hockey have been a conscious decision and something they are now thoroughly enjoying as part of a team that is elevating itself.

When Craigieburn Falcons Women’s team began in season one, the team’s performance was impressive considering all the other clubs were established clubs. “We made it to the semi-finals and we lost in the finals for season one. Since then we have been training. We got new girls come in to the team. This season we only lost one match in the whole season,” says a proud Shubseerat.

Although this is Taniya’s first season, she says joining hockey has been one of her best decisions. “I have played one whole season which consists of 16 rounds. So, I have played 16 different games in six months.”

Both girls concur that stamina, good ball control, recognising individual strength, communication skills and teamwork are key skills. And the fact they are all from Punjab “makes it all the more enjoyable”.

Perhaps, none can surpass the happiness of team captain Bhupinder who has stitched a team together from scratch. “I can see them all improving and showing the enthusiasm and spirit on field. I am so happy about it because coming from non-sports playing background, most of these women are now playing so efficiently. It is so encouraging.”

The plan is to add two more teams next year for one of the league games, says Bhupinder.

After a break of 15 years, getting her hands full now is almost a dream come true. “I was thinking building a women’s team will take a long time but with support from the club this is a great achievement as a community. It is heartening to see parents encouraging their daughters to play. I can’t thank them enough.”

By Indira Laisram