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Indian Women's Hockey's Fairytale Story Ridden With Personal Sacrifices

Every member in the Olympic Squad in Tokyo has been through personal struggles that can't be measured in words.

Updated
Olympic Sports
6 min read
Indian Women's Hockey's Fairytale Story Ridden With Personal Sacrifices
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In April this year, just when the Indian Women's Hockey Team were on the right path towards their Olympic Campaign, COVID struck the team for the first time. Six players had tested positive for the virus and were sent into a two-week isolation period. While the team was coming to terms with this setback, they received another blow. Their most-experienced forward with 246 international caps Vandana Katariya's father Nahar Singh had passed away in Haridwar due to COVID-related complications.

The most difficult decision for her was to skip the funeral and not bid her father, who had stood by her side through all the societal pressures to pursue her passion, a final good-bye.

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"She would have had to undergo quarantine again if she travelled and the threat of COVID was always there. It was a tough decision for her, and it was very upsetting for all of us in the team. It was very emotional for us to watch her cope with his loss, and suddenly all of us in the team began worrying about our parents back home amidst the raging pandemic," Captain Rani Rampal had mentioned in May.

India's Vandana Katariya celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against South Africa during a women's hockey match at the Tokyo Olympics.

(Photo: PTI)

Rani, too, had struggled not just with the mental fatigue caused by the two-week isolation period, but had also suffered Typhoid during the 10-day break they got after their tour to Germany. The entire time back home in Shahbad, she spent going in and out of a local hospital.

"It was the worst time of my life. And just when I returned to the camp thinking all is well, I tested positive for COVID. It's the isolation that is most exhausting mentally," she had said.

However, these setbacks never seemed to come in the way of their Olympic dream. They just accepted the reality and stayed committed to their target of making the Quarter Final of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

On Monday, when a weeping Rani hugged her teammates in joy after beating the mighty Australian side touted to be top medal contenders 1-0 – the struggles of this fascinating team's journey in field hockey would have certainly crossed her mind. Their fighting spirit to overcome three big losses (to Netherlands 1-5, Germany 0-2 and Great Britain 1-4) in the round robin league stage only to secure a 1-0 win against Ireland and a 4-3 win against South Africa speaks volumes about their mental toughness and the remarkable progress they have made in their fitness levels that enables them to keep up the tempo until the last hooter – something they could not manage four years ago in Rio, where they finished last.

"This match proves dreams can come true. If you start believing and you keep believing and you keep working hard, things can happen. You have to do the work to fulfil your dreams and that's what we did today," coach Sjoerd Marijne said after the win over Australia.

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Personal Struggles to Conquer Olympic Dream

Every member in the 18-member Olympic Squad in Tokyo has been through personal struggles that can't be measured in words. While Rani's quest against challenges posed by poverty and her cart-puller father's unwavering support for his daughter despite his own hardships to earn a square meal for the family of five is now well documented, players like Nehal Goyal, Nisha Warsi, Sushila Chanu, Deep Grace Ekka, Udita, and Lalremsiami have all faced tremendous financial hardships before they found success in the Indian team that not only earned them a job but also brought them cash awards following desirable results in Asian Games in 2018.

While getting a free shoe was Neha's motivation to pick up the hockey stick when she was in school, Lalremsiami's family encouraged her to move to New Delhi from Mizoram when she was selected for the program at National Hockey Academy for a simple reason that their daughter would get a better life if she took up the sport.

Goalkeeper Savita Punia, who was on Monday called as the 'Great Wall of India' who 'could not be beaten' by the Australia's High Commissioner to India Barry O'Farrell, would have never picked up the stick if not for her grandfather who took it upon himself to ensure that Savita was not restricted to the household in Haryana where patriarchal mindset is dominant.

"In fact, I hated playing hockey, particularly goalkeeping but my grandfather really wanted me to take it up. He did not want me to end up running the kitchen but wanted me to go conquer the world," Savita said of her entry into hockey.

Midfielder Nikki Pradhan and Salima Tete's journey in hockey, too, can make for a folklore in their home state of Jharkhand. Pradhan, who is from Hesal village in tribal heartland Khunti, cannot go back to her family home during hockey breaks because her village is now a Naxal stronghold.

"Whenever we get a break, I go to Ranchi where my brother and sisters live. Though I would love to visit our family home in Hesal, we are scared to go there. Not that the Naxals will harm us, but we just avoid going there now," she had expressed upon returning from Ranchi in April for the Olympics preparations camp.

On the other hand, Badki Chapar village, where Salima's family lives, had to invest in a generator so that the residents of the village could watch the Indian women's team's historic performance in Tokyo without being troubled by frequent power outages. The youngster who had led India U-18 Team to a Silver Medal in the Youth Olympic Games in 2018, which she calls her 'favourite moment', is poised to make the Tokyo Olympics her favourite now.

India's Neha Goyal (R) celebrates with Salima Tete (L) after scoring a goal against South Africa during the Tokyo Olympics.

(Photo: PTI)

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The team's Chief Coach Sjoerd Marijne, too, has been through his fair share of sacrifices to lead this team into the semi-finals of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Leaving behind a wife and four children in Den Bosch, Netherlands, Marijne took the path to fulfil his father Jos Marijne's dream when he took up the India assignment in 2017. Jos Marijne had passed away in 2015.

"I was very close to my father. He was my best friend and he always wanted me to Coach a team at the Olympics and succeed. I lost my mother Elly in 2015 too before I came to India, so doing well at the Olympics will involve a lot of emotions for me," he had said before leaving for Tokyo.

Ready to Face-Off Against Las Leonas

On 4 August when the Indian women, led by Rani, take on Argentina in the much-awaited semi-final encounter, the pressure will be on the World No. 3 side.

Unlike Australia who had dominated the Pool B with five wins out of five round robin league matches, Argentina managed three wins and two losses to make it to the knockout stage. In the quarter-final on Monday, they beat Germany 3-0 to make the semi-final round.

Having played India when they toured Argentina in January this year, the Las Leonas know what this Indian team can bring to the table. An underdog team in Rio, they have matured into strong contenders in Tokyo and Rani's squad is aware that an 'A game' against Argentina will not only ensure a medal for them but they will be able to change people's perception about Indian Women's Hockey forever.

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(Nandini Kumar is a former national swimmer and has worked with top English dailies in her stint as a journalist. She now works as content lead for WordsWork LLP)

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