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Tokyo Olympics 2020: Inspired by belief, Indian women's hockey team powers on

·4 min read

Tokyo: A few minutes after they helped engineer the stunning upset of Australia, Indian women's hockey team coach Sjoerd Marijne and skipper Rani Rampal were whisked away to the press conference room at the Oi Hockey Stadium in a golf cart. It was a five-minute ride, at the most. But during that ride, the coach and captain let their minds catch up with five years of work that went into this moment.

It was a moment even they were having trouble believing.

How many times have we heard that the Indian women's hockey team is in the semi-finals of the Olympics? Never.

How many times have we heard that the Indian women's hockey team went toe-to-toe with a world's top team like Australia in a match of consequence and actually beat them? Rarely.

How many times does an Indian team make it to the semi-final of a big-ticket tournament after losing all three of their first three matches? Never.

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"We were just talking about how we still cannot believe that we made it to the semis. It's not impossible. But it takes a lot of courage and hard work to beat teams in a quarter-final," Rani said.

The first three games of the Tokyo Olympics were particularly chastening experiences for the women's team. They lost 1-5 to the Netherlands, 0-2 to Germany, and 1-4 to Great Britain.

In those despairing days, Marijne organised a team session and showed them a movie to emphasise the importance of staying in the moment.

"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," said Rani. "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. It's an open tournament."

She has a theory. The toughest match to be played in a tournament like the Olympics is the quarter-final. In the pool stage, every team jostles to make it here. Here being this one shot at survival left in the tournament.

Make it to the semis, and even if you lose, you get another shot to take home the bronze medal. Make it to the final, and you take home a medal, win or lose.

But the quarters, they're brutal.

The Indian women don't have to worry about that anymore.

They didn't just make it to the semis, they pushed out Australia (who had won all their five group stage matches) to do so.

The Olympics are the playground for a team like Australia, who have been here a record 10th time, and have won it a record three times. At Rio five years ago, when they finished sixth, it was their worst result in Olympic women's hockey. Indian women's team, on the other hand, finished last among all 12 teams, having made it to the Olympics after 36 years.

Rio is still a touchy subject with this team.

"Rio wasn't really a good experience for all of us. We don't really think about Rio. It reminds us of really unhappy moments," said Rampal.

Mentality matters

Beating Australia is one thing. Actually wanting to play them is quite another form of insanity.

Savita Punia revealed that the team actually wanted to face Australia or New Zealand in the quarters.

"Rani told me before the match that the team is comfortable playing with Australia. She told me that 'we like to play against them, but they don't like to play against us.' That gave me confidence coming into this game," revealed Marijne.

Right after the win, the Dutch coach was asked how important it is to focus on the next match€"arguably the Indian women's team's most important€"rather than let the euphoria of making it to the semis get to their heads.

"I want my players to enjoy this moment. You cannot always look further and further in your life. First realise what has just happened," he said. "We've just made the quarters, we can be happy. Does it mean that we're not focussing on the next match? Of course, we are!"

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

Tokyo Olympics 2020: Valiant Indian women's hockey team go down 2-0 against Germany

Tokyo Olympics 2020: Day after silver medal, Indians left searching for silver linings among debacles

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