NEW DELHI, Sept 15: If one saw her mother working tirelessly for earning Rs 800 a month, the other endured the agony of being unemployed for almost a decade, while another learnt the game by playing with bamboo sticks.
To Savita Punia, Neha Goyal and Nikki Pradhan hockey brought solace, and these Indian women’s team players did not let personal turmoil affect their game. Also plenty of sacrifices were made during their journey to the top, making them hungrier for success.
They had their ‘Chak de’ moment in the Tokyo Olympics where they missed a podium finish by a whisker, and now they are on a mission to realise an unfulfilled dream.
The first step would be to secure direct qualification to the Paris Olympics through the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games.
They are not leaving any stone unturned, including giving up on their favourite food, in order to improve their willpower and fitness and win gold in Hangzhou.
“We know that there are immense expectations from us post Tokyo Olympics and this team is capable of winning medals. We are focusing on Asiad gold for Olympic qualification.
“In order to improve our willpower and fitness we have decided to stay away from at least one favourite thing of ours,” captain and goalkeeper Savita Punia told PTI Bhasha in an exclusive interview.
“I will not eat pizza or golgappa until the Asian Games,” she added.
One of the best goalkeepers in the world, the 33-year-old Savita never forgets her days of prolonged struggle, as she could not secure a job for nine years.
“I made a debut with the senior team in 2008 and won Asia Cup silver next year. Everyone thought that I would get a job. My mother sent me to play despite her illness. I was unemployed from 2009 to 2018 but my family did not let my game get affected because of that,” she added.
“When I got the Arjuna award in 2018, the first thing my mother asked was beta ab to naukri mil jaegi na (dear now you will get a job right). It left me heartbroken.
“Despite winning many medals including Asian Games and Asia cup, I was jobless, but finally, I got a job in 2018 when Olympians were recruited by SAI,” said the player from Sirsa, Haryana.
“I can never forget that time but it inspires me to give my best. However, the conditions are much better and our performance will open the doors for future generations of players too,” said the captain.
From working alongside her mother and sisters at a cycle factory, straightening spikes for about Rs 800 a month, to becoming an ace midfielder, the journey of Sonepat-born Neha Goyal is no less inspiring.
“I started playing hockey in school for new shoes and clothes. We all used to straighten bicycle spikes and would get three rupees per hundred. Monthly income was around Rs 800 and I felt ashamed of asking 20 rupees for auto fare to go for hockey training,” she recalled.
“When I won the first player of the match tournament in Bhopal, I decided to get my family out of this hell through hockey. I got a job in railway in 2015, and since then, I have been taking care of my family,” said the 26-year-old.
“Hockey has given me a life of dignity and hope. My only dream is to win an Olympic medal for the country. Asian Games are the first step and I have decided not to eat junk food, even my favourite pizza till then,” she said.
Coming from the Naxal-affected tribal district of Khunti in Jharkhand, defender Nikki Pradhan is the first woman hockey player from her state to appear in the Olympics.
Jharkhand is known for giving the country the legendary Mahendra Singh Dhoni but she hopes that girls from the state will bring hockey’s glory days back.
“There was not a single ground in my village when I started playing. My father was a police constable and could not afford to buy a hockey stick. I used to play on the road or in farmland with bamboo sticks,” she recollected.
“I have played in the Rio Olympics and know what an Olympic medal means. Now the target is Paris and we will aim at Asiad gold to begin our quest. I hope people will again start noticing Jharkhand for its hockey legacy.”
Nikki used to drink dozens of cups of tea but not anymore, thanks to the upcoming assignments.
“I have decided to stop having tea till the Asian Games. All of us are doing our bit and I don’t want to stay behind,” she said.
Veteran defender Deep Grace Ekka, who belongs to the nursery of Indian hockey — Sundargarh district in Odisha — will not eat sweets till the Games are over.
“I have a sweet tooth but have decided not to eat sweets till the Games are over. We want to complete the mission which we missed in Tokyo.
“I feel very proud to be associated with Sundargarh and want to be a part of its Hockey legacy with an Olympic medal,” she said.
Women’s hockey competition has been held since the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and India won the inaugural gold.
Since then the team has clinched two silver (1998, 2018) and three bronze (1986, 2006, 2014) but the gold has eluded them for the past 41 years. Interestingly, the men’s team won an Olympic medal after 41 years in Tokyo. (PTI)