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Tokyo Olympics 2020: India women's hockey team's historic run forged with self-belief and determination

·6 min read

Just as the hooter sounded, the Indian players sank to their knees, their eyes moist, and their faces wore the look of a dream being shattered.

The narrow 2-1 defeat to Argentina in the semi-final ended the Indian women's hockey team's hopes of winning the gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

For a team that finished last (12th) at the Rio Games in 2016, a final, a gold medal was always too big a task, one would say. But try telling that to Rani Rampal and Co who not only created history in Tokyo by becoming the first Indian women's team to reach the semi-finals but also made people of the cricket-crazy country forget Virat Kohli and his men who were playing at Nottingham, as they waited with bated breath for the outcome of the India-Argentina hockey match.

Try telling it to the magnificent 16 of Rani, Savita Punia, Sushila Chanu, Vandana Katariya, Nikki Pradhan, Deep Grace Ekka, Neha Goyal, Salima Tete, Navneet Kaur, Udita Duhan, Nisha Warsi, Lalremsiami, Monika Malik, Sharmila Devi, Gurjit Kaur, Navjot Kaur, because not even for one bit did they feel they couldn't do it.

And it's this indomitable self-belief that has got the team to break records and create history on a stage which has no parallel in the echelons of the sporting world.

The men's team, at the same time, has also been making us all proud at the Games. They defeated Great Britain to reach the first semi-final in 49 years and while they lost to Belgium in the last four, they still have the bronze medal match against Germany.

But men's hockey has been India's mainstream sport for generations. That they haven't been good at it for a long time is a different story altogether. The men's team has eight gold medals to its name in the Olympics. What they are doing in the 2020 Games is remarkable, but not unprecedented. What their female counterparts are doing is certainly extraordinary.

"It's been a great run for the women's and men's teams. From finishing last to now have the opportunity to be the third or fourth best team in the Olympics is in itself a great achievement. It's a proud moment for India and this will only help hockey progress in India. It shows how hard the team and coach have worked. Their fitness, mental toughness is very good. The exposure, matches with best teams has helped," says Pritam Rani Siwach, former India captain and member of the Commonwealth Games 2002 gold-winning team that inspired the movie Chak De! India.

When the team entered the Games, it was ranked No 10 in the world, with only two other participating teams beneath them in the table. After the first three games in Pool A, there wasn't much to separate between them and lowest-ranked South Africa who finished 12th this time.

A 5-1 mauling against giants Netherlands. A 2-0 loss to Germany. A 3-1 defeat to Great Britain had India on the brink of elimination. But belief is a thing that can make us move mountains.

It wasn't that the team didn't play well. They created opportunities against Germany and Great Britain but their finishing let them down. Heavily reliant on individual brilliance, they were failing to click as a team. The horror of 2016 seems to be repeating itself. But not this time. Not with this unit coached by Sjoerd Marijne, and perfected by analytical coach Janneke Schopman, scientific advisor Wayne Lombard and team psychologist Priyanka.

"Our pool was really tough. It's not easy bouncing back when you've lost your first three games by those sort of margins. But we took a lot of confidence with the first half we had against the Netherlands in our opener. We told ourselves that if we can stand up to the Dutch for an entire half, we can definitely stand up to other teams. Now we're in the semis," Rani would say, after the Australia game, about the team's revival.

Rani has been the cornerstone of the team for years, and also the most reliable source for goals. But Olympics hockey is not one person's job. Her teammates needed to pitch in and it began with the Ireland game.

In the dying minutes, Navneet deflected Rani's shot into the goal to get India their first win in Tokyo. against South Africa, Vandana Katariya registered her name in history books by scoring the first hat-trick for the women's team at Olympics, as India won 4-3. Britain played its part by beating Ireland, as India made it to the quarter-finals for the first time.

Then came the Aussies €" three-time champions and world No 2. They entered the pitch with a swagger but left it rankled after a 1-0 loss. The scoreline actually doesn't reflect all that transpired in the game. A plucky Indian team put the pressure from the start, a rattled Australian side was slow to react. By the time they got their act together, India had the all-important goal and the victory after 60 minutes.

The historic run was halted by Argentina in the semi-finals, but India still have the bronze medal match against Britain on 6 August. Britain won the group stage game but they are well aware they can't afford to take anything lightly. This Indian team is supremely fit, matching their western contemporaries toe-to-toe in physical battles. They have developed massively in the skill department with them displaying some amazing longballs and run-ups with the ball. But above all, their grit and bravery are second to none. It's this mental fortitude that has helped them chronicle history. The self-belief to keep going even after three straight losses. The self-belief to dare to dream even with history stacked against them.

Mentally strong they have to be. For these girls have fought bigger battles off the pitch to be on the pitch playing for India. Some didn't have money to buy hockey sticks, some couldn't afford two meals, most were bound with chains of patriarchy. If all that misfortune couldn't stop them, the pressure of the Olympics was not going to touch them.

"Not a few but the majority of Indian players have fought a huge battle to make it to the team, A battle at their home, their village, their town. They have made it to the team despite very little support and facilities. And it's not just in hockey. We as a country have made progress at the grassroots level but a lot more focus must be given," adds Pritam.

The Argentia defeat may have dashed the gold medal hopes but history has been made. Even the best break down under the pressure at Olympics but the India women's hockey team has reveled in it.

Also See: Tokyo Olympics 2020: Fearless India women's hockey team stuns Australia to create history, enter first Games semi-final

Tokyo Olympics 2020: Rani Rampal and Co can't afford another slip up against Great Britain

Tokyo Olympics 2020: India women's hockey team clinches late winner against Ireland to stay alive in competition

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