As a kid, Sarita Bhise was the fastest runner in her Indian village of Dhuldev. And she got plenty of practice. Half the year, her family roamed the grasslands as they grazed their goats, covering hundreds of miles.
When she was 10, she was spotted by talent scouts from a local project that uses sports to provide opportunities to rural kids, especially girls. They thought she'd be a good candidate for a government-run sports hostel where young athletes live, train and get an education for free.
After months of training, in 2011, Sarita was one of 150 candidates for the prestigious program. They went through 9 days of tests. She was one of only about two dozen who were selected.
"She was always focused and fit," recalls coach Maruti Lokhande of Mann Deshi Champions, the group that scouted and trained her.
Field hockey became Sarita's sport. By 2016, she was the captain of the team for girls under age 16 from her state, Maharashtra. In January 2020, their squad won a bronze at a national youth games competition.
She was also fortunate to have a sponsor to fill gaps that the government-run program and prize money (which is paltry) couldn't meet. Indusind Bank gave her allowance of $34 a month, which she used to buy fresh fruit, which tends to be expensive, as well as sports equipment.
Then came the pandemic. And the massive lockdowns in India.
The hostel sent its athletes home. Sarita's monthly allowance stopped. And she had to go back to work on the family farm. They get much of by their income from selling goats from their herd of about 50 but also grow millets, pulses and wheat, generally "for us," says Sarita – who has an extended family of about 10. Any excess is sold. But this year heavy rainfall spoiled the crops, Sarita says, and "money is short."
At the end of May, Sarita had a chance to restart basic training with Mann Deshi with room and board included – an interim solution until the government program restarts. But her father insisted she turn down the invitation. He needed Sarita and a cousin to help bring back the goats before monsoons commence around June. Family members who shepherd the goats in the grasslands stay in makeshift homes that can't shelter them from the rains.
The pandemic has of course made life complicated for all athletes – but especially for girls from rural areas.
The setbacks are especially discouraging in the wake of strides India made in support of female athletes after the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"India only got two medals that year and both from women, which was a big deal," explains Yatin Shriwardhankar of Lakshya, an organization that supports budding athletes all over India. The Olympic success brought an increase in funding, scholarships and training programs for women. A lot of that's on hold due to COVID-19.
And when training centers closed down, rural kids like Sarita had to return to their village homes, where there were few options for keeping fit or practicing their sport.
Playgrounds can double up as training spaces. But even those are far and few in rural parts of India.
"Often you don't find a single playground not only between 20-25 villages, but sometimes even 50 villages," says Amrish Kumar, India's national coach for athletics.
This lack of facilities generally affects female athletes more. "Boys usually run on the road, but girls do not because safety's always a concern," says Kumar. What's more, as it's uncommon to see girls in shorts or sports gear in villages, the girls might attract scorn if they train outside. "Rural parents fear that people will see them with different eyes," says Chennai-based P Nagarajan, who coaches kids from all over the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The technological divide poses additional difficulties. A month into lockdown, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and sports federations shifted to online training. But because reliable internet connections and smartphones aren't common in rural areas, Kumar estimates that only about 20% of rural athletes access the sessions.
Women are at a particular disadvantage. "As male chauvinism prevails in rural communities, girls are usually the last to receive such things. Sarita got a smartphone only after winning money at Khelo India Youth Games," says Prabhat Sinha, founder of Mann Deshi Champions.
Ashwini Kolekar, another of Sinha's national-level field-hockey players, doesn't even own a phone. Says Sinha: "We couldn't contact her when lockdown began. She missed the weekly instructions, biweekly Zoom interactions with our coaches, nutritionists as well as international athletes and coaches."
The "male-first" mindset puts other burdens, like housework, on its female athletes, says Sinha. "You'll find our national-level female athletes cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, tilling farms, and sometimes [taking odd jobs] even when visiting family briefly. It takes superhuman effort. I can't imagine male athletes of their level doing it," says Sinha.
Even today, many parents are unsupportive of girls entering sports. "They want to get them married early, 'settle' them ... It's their idea of a good life," says Nagarajan.
Sinha says three of his female players have been married off recently. And the pandemic appears to be playing a role – with restrictions on wedding sizes, parents won't face as big a bill for the event. "Some parents think it's a good time for it because they won't have to spend much during lockdown," he says.
Meanwhile, Sarita is facing another obstacle. Her father has taken ill so she hasn't been able to rejoin the interim training program. "I spend the day farming, so there's no time to practice," she says. "But I plan to go to the Pune hostel in January... the hostel's currently closed." It's likely to reopen then.
And she has a pretty basic wish — if and when that happens – a new goal-keeper kit to replace her old, worn-out one.
Pooja Bhula is a journalist based in Mumbai, India, who writes for various print and digital publications. She's the co-author of Intelligent Fanatics of India. You can follow her @PoojaBhula