In a historic moment for Kho Kho, a popular tag game invented in Maharashtra, Sarika Kale from Osmanabad, was awarded the prestigious Arjuna Award for this year, and will be presented with it during a virtual ceremony on 29 August, which happens to be National Sports Day.
This is the first time in 22 years that a Kho Kho player is receiving the Arjuna Award, and the 27-year-old, who is the former Indian women’s Kho Kho captain, could not be more thrilled.
She has played over a hundred matches, including 22 at the National level and she also led the national team to clinch a gold at the 12th South Asian Games (SAG) in Guwahati in 2016. Her spectacular performance and excellent judgment of direction were also displayed in the Asian Kho-Kho championship in Indore (2016). The team did not lose a single match in the series and clinched the cup after defeating Bangladesh in the finals. Following the win, Sarika was adjudged the best player and won a cash prize of Rs 51,000.
While the award is no doubt a milestone in her career, what is truly impressive is Sarika’s journey, which started in Ruibhar, a small village in Osmanabad. From being able to afford just one meal a day to working as a sports officer with the Maharashtra government, and winning the ‘Best Player Award’ in England (2017) the feisty woman braved all odds, charted her own destiny and defeated her deplorable circumstances to follow her one true passion — Kho Kho.
“Winning this prestigious award is a very huge deal. It not only recognises my hard work but also significantly raises the bar for an indigenous sport that deserves the nation’s attention. Through this award at least now people will know what the game is all about. I am very proud to receive the award and I hope to make the country proud as many times as possible in the future. I dedicate this award to my family, coach and every girl who wishes to make a career in sports,” an overwhelmed Sarika tells The Better India.
Recalling the moment when her coach, Chandrajit Jadhav broke the news to her at her house she says, “It was an extremely emotional moment for all of us. This time, I shed tears of joy.”
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Kho Kho is a very popular sport in Maharashtra. Like cricket, this game also has a batting (runners) and fielding side (chasers). It is played with twelve nominated players in each team. The objective is to avoid getting touched by the opponent, and it requires immense stamina, speed and flexibility.
While the game was an integral part of Sarika’s childhood, she didn’t realise that she could make a career out of playing it, until she met Chandrajit, who was bowled over by her talent.
“In 2003-04, I was a coach with the state women’s team and we were on tour to spot the hidden talents in remote areas. After a few days of training, we selected 50 school girls out of 200 based on their running speed and physical fitness. Sarika was one of them. Her involvement and excitement for the game stood out from the rest and I knew with the right training, this girl could make India proud,” Chandrajit tells The Better India.
Sarika loved the game so much that she never missed a single practice. In fact, during monsoons, she would force Chandrajit to take the practice. No festivals, celebrations, sickness, or any other thing came in the way of Kho Kho for this schoolgirl.
Even as she acknowledges her love for the same, there was another reason why she hated to miss even a single day of practice.
However, when Sarika got an opportunity to play for the state in a tournament in 2005, her father refused to let her go and tried to force her to leave the sport.
After one such argument, she locked herself in a room and skipped practice for 12 days. She had almost given up. Her grandmother, who believed in Sarika’s talent, contacted Chandrajit and requested him to get her back on the field. An alarmed Chandrajit assured Sarika’s family that the state federation would take care of their daughter’s expenses and educated them on how Sarika’s win would unburden their financial woes.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the same is also applicable for those who want to achieve the impossible and in doing so they need support and encouragement from various stakeholders.
This holds in Sarika’s case as without the unconditional support and constant motivation from her mother, grandmother and coach, she wouldn’t have reached this stage.