For 27-year-old Olympian Gurpreet Sohi, “pressure is a privilege.”
The Delta native is a water polo athlete who represented Team Canada at the Tokyo Olympics this August, showing that there are no limitations to what young athletes from this community can do when given the opportunity and support to chase their dreams.
Sohi sat down with 5X Press to talk about competing at a high level, how her upbringing contributed to her drive and determination, and how the support of the community has impacted her.
Her love of the sport of water polo started at a young age, after her mother made a rule that her and her brother had to be in at least one sport or activity no matter what.
She said at first, she just wanted to follow in her brother’s footsteps.
“She didn’t care if it was bowling or figure skating or speed walking or whatever she just had a rule that we had to be in an activity at all times,” she said.
Her brother, who is five years older than her, got into swimming and waterpolo, and Sohi and her family fell in love with the tight knit community in the sport.
But she says her start wasn’t exactly easy.
“When I started water polo I was really bad. They had a rule that you could come to practice if you could swim a full lap of the pool and I couldn’t even swim a full lap of the pool, but I still wanted to jump in and try,” she said.
“I spent the first two years of my sport basically drowning. It was bad. I had to be saved a few times.”
But even as a young water polo player, Sohi said she loved the challenge, and being able to push herself to work harder and get better over time.
“I also like the aspect of constantly being underestimated, and this is where looking different from everyone else may have played into it. I was really small for my age growing up so I was this little tiny Indian girl, [and] back in the day it was co-ed because we didn’t have enough players, so I was 12 and I was playing against 16-year-old Eastern European men,” she said.
“And they would look at me and they would laugh and everyone would want to guard me because I was the easy one to guard, and I would just go all out.”
Despite being the only “tiny Indian girl,” Sohi, who attended Stanford University to play water polo, said she didn’t realize the lack of representation in the sport of water polo until she got older.
“I started playing with the youth national team when I was 14-years-old and I got selected to a roster, but even before that I think I didn’t necessarily see my identity as even being the token brown kid of the group,” she said.
But more recently, especially ahead of this year’s games, she noticed how pronounced the differences really were.
“Even just recently with the Black Lives Matter movement I was involved in pushing our sport to release a statement and to have action after that, and I realized in that moment and since then. I’ve looked around at the national team and coaching staff and felt very different from them,” she said.
“I felt kind of isolated in the fact that we lack diversity. I think now I really feel it, [but] growing up, [I] didn’t see my ethnicity as something that made me different and would hold me back.”
She said in the face of all of this, having her family and community’s support made the world of a difference, especially for her at the Olympics.
“I felt so much support specifically from the Delta-Surrey area, from my old swim clubs, from my old water polo club even though there was no one that could be there in the stands with us, my phone was blowing up and it was so cool to see so much support,” she said.
“It was really cool to be at the games and notice that so many people were paying attention to what we were doing. For the first time in my career I felt that support so it’s really cool.”
Sohi added that she feels grateful that she had the support of her family to explore her interests and follow her passions, especially seeing where it could take her.
“My parents really built the community for us in a sense, and they continue to support me even now. They’re not pressuring me to move onto my education, or move on to get married, they’re really open to whatever I want to do and they’ve also seen so much benefit of being able to travel the world in my education, and they’ve seen those benefits, and they’re big advocates for other families to really allow their kids to explore athletics and see where that can take them,” she said.
After experiencing the whirlwind that was the Tokyo Olympics, Sohi said that although she’s taking a bit of a break in the fall, she’s not ready to be done with the sport just yet.
“I’m considering 2024, it’s definitely on the table for me,” she said.
“My sport is still teaching me how to grow and learn and become a better person and it’s still challenging me and it’s still rewarding and I think now that I’m at this point, there’s this famous quote that says, ‘I didn’t work so hard to get here, just to be here,’ [and] I feel like I’ve worked so hard to get to [this] point that I know that I’m not done with water polo yet, but I also know I’m not ready to go to medical school.”
She said that treating water polo like a career was what helped propel her to high stages and helped her persevere and accomplish so many of her achievements.
“I see water polo as a career. This is my first career, and I’ll have a second one."
“So many people told me that I wasn’t going to make it because I was shorter than everyone else, because I looked different than everyone else, people told me that I wouldn’t be able to get a scholarship to Stanford and that I’d never make the national team because I wasn’t the typical water polo player, and I kind of let that feed my drive and took it as a challenge.”
Her advice to other young athletes wanting to pursue sports is to ignore what other people may think and to follow your own passions.
“Whatever attitude you have is going to shape your success in your path. It’s not about what people tell you is the norm. Whatever sport or whatever passion you have, pursue it, and your attitude is going to drive how far you’re going to go in it.” she said.
“So if you enjoy doing it, do it. Put yourself out there even if there’s not people that look like you. Be the first to do that and if you love it, that’s what’s going to take you far.”
About the author: Rumneek is a journalist, host, and Editor-in-Chief of 5X Press. She is also host of 5X's Youtube and IGTV show What's the Vibe breaking down hot topics inside Surrey and out. She is a graduate of The University of British Columbia's Masters of Journalism program, and has previously worked as a host/producer at Decomplicated, and as a writer at Daily Hive Vancouver and CBC Toronto. She thinks she's funny on twitter @rumneeek