When people ask Vahbiz Bharucha what does she do for a living, she usually starts by saying she's a physiotherapist and then casually mentions that she plays rugby for the Indian team.
On Wednesday, it seemed more fitting than ever as she donned the role of a physiotherapist on the sidelines of the Khelo India University Games 2020 (KIUG), being held at Bhubaneswar's KIIT rugby field.
Indian women's team rugby captain Vahbiz Bharucha tends to an injured player on Wednesday in her capacity as a physiotherapist during the Khelo India University Games being held in Bhubaneswar. Image courtesy: Khelo India University Games
Sporting a green bib over her pink officials' jersey, and with medical paraphernalia like ice-packs and pain-relieving sprays close at hand, Bharucha spent the whole morning tending to players' injuries. But the urge to play kept nagging at her.
"I have to control myself. But thankfully because I'm a medic I can keep running onto the field. So I get my moments of pleasure in that. It's funny what goes in an athlete's head when they're watching a game happening right in front of them," she told Firstpost over the phone on Wednesday evening.
Is she giving into the urge to do some sideline coaching?
"Definitely not doing any sideline coaching, but I'm doing some sideline playing. Just how you would pillion ride. I'm just standing there jabbering away (advice)," she chuckled.
For Bharucha, the rugby event at the KIUG represents a balance between the two passions of her life " her physiotherapy career and playing rugby.
But there were times when it was difficult for her to maintain equilibrium. She was dropped from India squad for the tour of Sri Lanka in 2016.
"That time there was a transition happening internally in my head. I was getting a lot of input from elders that I should focus on my career as a physiotherapist and how that aspect should take a priority. In that scenario, the balance tipped. There was just an overload on one side. All my attention got diverted away from rugby," she said.
But she quickly broke back into the team, and became the captain of the team too.
"When I chose physiotherapy as a profession, I knew that it would take a little more out of me than any other profession. It requires quite a bit of attention. But that's the time I told myself that just because I have to give attention to this, doesn't mean I will have to compromise on the attention I give to the game. This is why a lot of things started falling into place in my own mind. I've prioritised these two aspects of my life. Everything besides these two things took a step back for me. No holidays, no family outings to restaurants. I was always the missing one in the family picture. It was challenging. There were days when I said to myself, I don't want to do anything. After a certain point of time, these things just went on auto pilot. It stopped being a challenge anymore."
The bigger challenge though for players like Bharucha is the perception of the sport in the country and, more importantly, women playing it.
"When I started out, it was perceived as a maar peet ka game (a violent sport). But now people are not just interested in women beating each other up and want to know more about the nuances of the sport. The perception has definitely changed. People still think of it as an injury-prone sport or a sport where you can get very badly injured. That kind of a mindset is still there. "
She said the skill level of players coming into the game has also gone up over the years.
"At the Khelo India Youth Games only you can see that the skill level of these players is really high as compared to where it used to be 10 or even five years ago. It's at a different level right now," she said.
Her only grouse is the mindset of players where they want to soldier on even when injured.
"That is an ingrained mindset that we have in our country. The mard ko dard nahi hota (men don't feel pain) attitude. I saw it a lot today," she said.
And while the Indian women's Sevens team will not be making the cut for Tokyo Olympics, things for the Indian women's team have also started to look up. In April last year, Springboks legend Naas Botha came on board as the rugby coach for the national team. The women's rugby team also won their first ever international 15s rugby match in June, beating Singapore at the Asia Women's Division 1 Rugby XVs Championship.
"The future for women's rugby in India looks very bright," she signed off.