By Lakhpreet Kaur
At 15, she made her high school’s varsity field hockey team and got to the state championship. At 16, she was chosen to be team captain, was awarded First Team All-Conference in defense and again finished the season with a trip to state. At 17, she was recruited to be on a NCAA field hockey team.
Meet Sirjaut Kaur.
Standing 6 feet tall, she may be one of the first Sikh-American girls to play NCAA field hockey.
This fall, Colby-Sawyer College launched their varsity field hockey program and Sirjaut was recruited for the inaugural team to play defense. Coach Emily Rinde-Thorsen, Colby-Sawyer’s head field hockey coach, spent, “a ton of time on the road going to local games and tournaments in New England,” to find recruits. She saw Sirjaut play at Festival, the national field hockey festival in Arizona, and was able to meet her in person, which she believes “is big part of the reason why she’s here now.” When asked about what drew Rinde-Thorsen to Sirjaut Kaur as a player, she answered without hesitation, “Her size. Her size was the number one thing.”
“SJ’s like a wall. There’s no way you can get around her,” recalled a coach in Wisconsin. “Not only does she have the wing span and reach to cover a great distance,” Rinde-Thorsen explained, “But she also has a good foundation of solid footwork to get her body prepared.” Because of this, Sirjaut has a huge presence in the backfield.
Even if one has the skills to advance in athletics, many young Sikhs growing up in the west may feel the pressure to cut their hair or shave in order to fit the athletic image or match the “team look.” But despite the field hockey skirts and sleeveless jerseys, Sirjaut Kaur manages to maintain her Sikh bana. “Obviously people notice that I don’t shave, but I don’t really care what other people think of me,” Sirjaut Kaur said resolutely.
“It’s something that I noticed,” reflected Rinde-Thorsen. But she was aware of the Sikh tradition of keeping long hair, having read Sirjaut’s college admission essay. Sirjaut has never encountered hostility towards her Sikhi. “I think no one has said anything mean about me not shaving because I’m not afraid to be who I am. I’m comfortable about myself and so people don’t belittle my beliefs.” She feels that her strong sense of self and her understanding of Sikh rehat helps her on the field. “I’m confident in myself and it doesn’t affect my play or my psyche. The fact that I’m competitive makes people focus on playing against me and they don’t focus on how I look different.” She adds that sharing her Sikhi with her teammates helps them understand her beliefs and then support her on and off the field.
“When the season started and the team saw me doing my joora, they said, ‘Oh my God! Your hair is so long!’ I told them it was a part of my religion and they said ‘Oh, wow! That’s so cool!’ They ask me questions and stuff, but no one has been derogatory towards me or anything …” Rinde-Thorsen says the funniest thing for her was seeing the team’s reaction to Sirjaut’s ability to tie a joorra without a rubber band. “They were shocked,” she said laughing, “they asked questions like, ‘How does it do that!? How does it just stay?’ But Sirjaut explained: ‘When I’m playing sports I tie it really tight with elastics.’”
Understanding how others perceive her Sikh image helps Sirjaut mold the way in which she conducts herself and how she interacts with her team. She asked one of her good friends about the latter’s first impressions of her and she replied: “The first thing I thought is, ‘Why are this girl’s legs so hairy?’ But now I feel so mean because [Sirjaut] is so cool and I totally get it!” Sirjaut encourages her team mates to ask her questions, telling them she’s not uncomfortable talking about issues. “I always tell people, ‘Feel free to ask me anything. You can ask me whatever you want. Don’t worry; no question is a stupid question.’”
Rinde-Thorsen explains: “Sirjaut is very open,” and quickly adds that having Sirjaut on the team is, “really enlightening” about Sikhi.
Off the field, it seems like Sirjaut Kaur’s strength and individuality rubs off onto others. One girl told her that it was cool that she doesn’t shave and asked the reason behind it. Sirjaut said, “It’s for equality between men and women. If men don’t, then why do we have to? Just to fit into the media image?” Her friend responded, “I stopped shaving this summer because I was lazy and now because of that equality reason, I might stop all together.” Despite the fact Sirjaut doesn’t have a Sikh sangat at Colby Sawyer, she still has a supportive sangat in her teammates. They respect her space when she listens to kirtan, they don’t interrupt her when she’s doing nitnem, and they don’t peer pressure her into conforming.
“I think it’s really important, even if you don’t have any Sikhs around, to have people who respect you and understand you. For example, some of my teammates drink when not in season. But when I tell them I don’t drink, they’re totally fine with it. They don’t try to push me to do stuff that I don’t want to do. I think that’s the most important thing.” Rinde-Thorsen echoed similar sentiments about the team’s camaraderie. “In terms of friendship, the dynamic is great. They all get a long really well … The kids want to learn about [Sirjaut’s] religion and she’s very willing to share. Her personality and sense of humor is good to open our kids’ eyes up to diversity and respect and Sirjaut’s a great ambassador for that.”
Sirjaut’s advice to other young Sikh athletes who want to keep their kesh and still play: “Don’t change who you are because other people want you to.”
In her first game, she played the full time, without substitution, and helped her team to their first ever field hockey victory in overtime on September 1. She reminisces that she first developed her field hockey skills at Arrowhead High School in Wisconsin.
Now, Colby-Sawyer College is also considering making Sirjaut the women’s Lacrosse goalie.
Special thanks to Ryan Emerson, Jeff Kessler, Emily Rhine-Thorson, Paramveer Singh, and Ekta Sampson for their assistance in writing this article.