When the opening whistle blew for the Rutgers field hockey team’s first game against Boston College, the Scarlet Knights accomplished two firsts in Division-I field hockey history.
Freshmen midfielder Ashpal Bhogal and back Sofia Walia became the first two Sikh players to play Division I.
It was only fitting to occur at Rutgers, which U.S. News and World Report ranks as the most diverse college in the country.
It was one of the factors that led Walia to Piscataway.
“Once I came for my official visit, I felt like I was at home almost,” she said. “Being from an Indian family, it’s hard to leave home and it was a little hard for my parents as well, but it was a place I thought I could make home for the next four years.”
Originating in India, Sikhism is currently the fifth-largest religion in the world with 30 million followers. There are just more than a million Sikhs in North America.
Both Knights have played in all 13 games this year and tie for second on the team in points with nine each. Bhogal has two goals and five assists, while Walia has three goals and three assists.
Firsts are nothing new to the players, as they accomplished many. Walia began training with the Canadian National Program when she was 12. She became the first Sikh female player to represent Canada and is currently a member of its senior national team.
Walia turns to her faith on and off the field.
“Before my game, while the anthem is going on, I do my prayers,” Walia said. “I have to shower and do my prayers before I head out, especially after practice. I have a lot of faith in my religion.”
Bhogal became the first British-Asian and Sikh to play field hockey for England when she competed on the country’s U18 and U16 teams. An ACL injury kept her from a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.
“It’s an honor just to have that title and to represent all the Sikh females out there,” she said.
Walia actually did some recruiting to get Bhogal to join the Knights.
“Sofia Walia is like a sister to me and she knew me outside of Rutgers,” Bhogal said. “She knew I just came back from the ACL and I was borderline in the national camp, so maybe I’d take another feeder opportunity in field hockey. She kind of suggested me to [head coach Meredith Long] and she looked me up and recruited me to come here.”
Walia hopes her spot on the team can help clear some common misconceptions held about Sikhs.
“We’re Indian but we don’t fall into the typical Indian stereotype where you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” she said. “It’s more of morals, where we give 10 percent of our income to charity, we try to focus as much as you can on your goals. It’s not like you can’t go out, it’s more of being a good person within yourself.”
At Rutgers, there are approximately 30 members of the Sikh Student Association. But the group’s president, Simran Farmah, found many more students have attended its events.
She thinks the players can help represent her religion and make it more visible on campus.
“It’s great because there are a lot of Sikh people on campus but they’re not involved in a lot of activities, especially sports,” Farmah said. “We never really had any Sikh athletes. Especially at Rutgers, it’s nice to see the diversity even in our athletics and it makes us proud that they’re Sikh.”
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Originally Published By: Daily Targum