Munmuni Das was barely 11 years old when she started playing hockey in her village in Joriguri – a small town in Assam’s Tinsukia district. The younger of two siblings from a poor Bengali family, Munmuni had had no exposure to the sport nor any professional training. Her passion for the sport motivated her to keep playing. “My initial days were full of challenges and hurdles,” she reminisces. “Being a girl, I had to practice alone. I often faced criticism and taunts. I had no technical knowledge. I watched other children play and implemented the techniques in my playing style.” It was a rollercoaster ride.
Nevertheless, she persisted
But her natural talent could not be hidden for too long. In 2016, Munmuni was selected for the state championship held at Hojai in Nagaon, Assam. It was at these games that selectors from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) first spotted her. Shortlisted by the selectors who were impressed with her prowess, Munmuni went on to attend the selection trials and secured a place at the SAI-SAG [Special Area Games] centre in Kokrajhar in 2017.
When Munmuni joined the SAI-SAG centre, there was no infrastructure available for the game, let alone a synthetic turf to practice upon. Hockey was a newly introduced sport at the centre, and the girls’ hockey team had to first clean and brush off the ground before they could commence practice. There was no training structure for the athletes, nor were there any coaches available to conduct the training.
Despite the odds, Munmuni continued to hone her talent. Within a year, her talent and hard work brought her to the notice of Napoleon Singh, then-selector and coach at SAI. “When I saw her for the first time at the Assam State Championship in 2016, she was already a very skilled player,” says Mr Singh. “Her distribution of the ball was very good too.”
Then, she was chosen to represent the Assam State Team as vice-captain in the Hockey India Sub-Junior National Championship (B Division), 2018. It was her first state-level representation, and she didn’t disappoint – her team were the champions that year. This was just the beginning. Munmuni didn’t know it then, but her future was going to change.
Raising the bar
In November 2018, the Tata Trusts, in partnership with Tata Steel, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Odisha to set up and operate a high-performance hockey centre – the Naval Tata Hockey Academy (NTHA) – in the state. Its objective was to bring global coaching standards to India to improve the level of coaching through training, review and monitoring mechanisms. The long-term goal of the academy is to establish a grassroots programme in the region, and to raise the level of hockey coaching in the state. The Trusts also brought in the Bovelander Hockey Academy, Netherlands (led by famous Olympian and drag flicker, Floris Ian Bovelander), the technical partner of the Hockey Ace Foundation, for the Odisha programme. Indusind, a well-known corporate firm stepped in to sponsor the girls’ vertical. The Odisha government provides the necessary infrastructure to the academy and the selected children would practice on two hockey pitches, including the one on which the Hockey World Cup was played.
NTHA is focused on the holistic development of players. Apart from coaching, the academy also provides education and other life skills, so the children have better career options when they pass out of the academy. Those selected also have free access to the best sports science support from the Target Performance Centre – a programme run by top shooter Abhinav Bindra – which is located near the academy in Kalinga Stadium.
NTHA also offers players free access to the best of sports technology, an experienced nutritionist, mental trainer, a dedicated physiotherapist as well as exposure to international hockey events organised in the Kalinga Stadium, Odisha.
Despite Munmuni’s obvious talent and accomplishments, her family was not very keen on her sporting career. Her father, Kaliya Das, sold fish on the streets for a living. Her mother, Bojenti, is a homemaker. Their financial condition constrained the support they could offer. It was Jai Bhagwan, her coach at SAI-SAG and Tapan Kumar Das, the Secretary of Hockey, Assam, who stepped in to help Munmuni participate in the NTHA Odisha trials in Bhubaneswar in April 2019.
Their faith in her talent was not misplaced. Munmuni was one of the 26 talented children within the 12-18 age group who were selected for the NTHA programme. At the academy, Munmuni was provided with quality hockey training, education and career opportunities that she could only dream about until then. Boarding and lodging was also free of cost.
The guidance and exposure that Munmuni could avail of at the academy has proven beneficial to her career. One of the most talented and resilient players from NTHA, Munmuni played for NTHA at the Nehru Cup 2019, and was chosen ‘Player of the Match’ in one of the games. She also captained the Assam girls’ hockey team for Khelo India Youth Games 2019, where she led her team to the U-17 Girls semi-finals. “NTHA Odisha made me grow both as an athlete and as an individual,” says Munmuni. “It led to my captaining my state at the Khelo India Youth Games 2020.”
The future is hers
Munmuni is not ready to rest on her laurels. She dreams of representing India in the international arena, to repay the faith and trust of those who believed in her and supported her. And even though she tragically lost her father recently to a sudden illness, she knows she has made her family proud.
Napoleon Singh is proud of her too. He is grateful to NTHA Odisha for providing the best-in-class training to young talented players and believes that the academy’s support will help motivate children like Munmuni to reach international levels of performance. Singh knows that when she joined SAI-SAG, Kokrajhar, Munmuni had the dream of playing for India. Having monitored her progress since then, he is sure that “She can be the captain of the Indian Women’s hockey team.”
Munmuni’s enthusiasm and excellence in sports has made her village proud. They all want to see her fulfil her dreams. “I lost my father recently, but he was proud of my achievements and so are my mother and sister. Even the people of the village I hail from are very appreciative.”
With the love and support of all the people around her, and her undeterred passion for the sport, Munmuni is set to achieve more laurels!