24th July 2021: Netherlands 5-1 India
26th July 2021: Germany 2-0 India
28th July 2021: Great Britain 4-1 India
Three defeats in the span of five days to begin the Olympics, and the demons ought to have arisen once more. The voices of all the naysayers the Indian women’s hockey team dealt with throughout their lives returning once more to haunt them. Memories of Rio, where the team finished last, patronising pats-on-the-back waiting in store for them at home.
Were this an ordinary team, blame-filled fingers would have been pointed in all directions in the dressing room. This team should have crumbled. Indeed, plenty have.
30th July 2021: Ireland 0-1 India
Fourteen penalty corners went a-begging as India pummeled the Irish goal in a desperate bid to stay alive in the Tokyo Olympics. Three minutes away from an ignominious exit, with the team searching for solutions as their tired minds and bodies looked to have given way.
The critics were lying in wait, sharpening their knives. Having fought against said critics for almost the entirety of her career is perhaps what galvanised captain Rani Rampal, who seemed to concentrate all her frustrations into a tomahawk aimed at the left post. Navneet Kaur’s instinctual flick of the wrists deflected the ball into the goal, and India had their first win in 41 years at the Olympics.
31st July 2021: South Africa 3-4 India
The South Africans just kept coming. Every time India took the lead with some clever variations in penalty corners, their opponents responded by levelling soon after. In the sweltering 35-degree heat of Tokyo, India needed the win to keep their quarter-final hopes alive. Yet, as though pressure was an emotion alien to them, they kept their minds and continued to rely on what worked.
Another deflected goal off a penalty corner, and Vandana Katariya had written herself into the history books – the only Indian woman to score a hat-trick at the Olympics. India had their victory, and after Great Britain did them a favour against Ireland, a place in the quarterfinals was assured.
2nd August 2021: Australia 0-1 India
And then… history.
No one gave them a whiff of a chance. India faced top seeds and three-time champions Australia, who had won all five of their previous games while only letting in a solitary goal.
And that’s all it took – a solitary goal. Gurjit Kaur, finally, finally getting the drag-flicks on target and into the net in the 22nd minute. Yet, what followed was… the stuff of legend.
For thirty-eight agonising minutes, India held on. The players putting mind, body and soul on the line as they kept the Australians at bay. Savita Punia, ever so shy off the pitch, cajoled and corralled her defence as she saved all nine of the attempts the Aussies sent her way. Back home the entirety of India watched on, scarcely believing what they were witnessing. The hooter buzzed, and this team reached their first-ever Olympic semifinal. A medal was tantalisingly close.
4th August 2021: Argentina 2-1 India
6th August 2021: Great Britain 4-3 India
Sport, like life, can be cruel. After a narrow loss to Argentina in the semifinals, India’s hopes for a medal rested on their performance against a team who had already bested them 4-1 ten days prior. A 2-0 deficit in the 24th minute and you would think it was probably game over. But this team dug deep into their bottomless reserves of whatever it is that makes champions once again, and in the span of five incredible minutes had taken a 3-2 lead.
Six minutes of euphoria followed, as India dreamt of their first ever medal in women’s hockey in only their third Olympic appearance. Hollie Pearne-Webb’s strike in the 35th minute shattered a billion hearts, with Grace Baldson applying the finishing blow in the final quarter.
Tears were shed, unashamedly. Not just by the players, but by many back home. Because if there ever was a team that deserved a medal, it was them.
Sixteen stories of overcoming familial pressure, overcoming a society that never afforded them a chance, overcoming economic hardships, overcoming casteist slurs, overcoming every single handicap that can be handed to a sportsperson in India, and they came ever so close to a medal.
Yet, in tragic defeat there was a victory all the same. Like 1983 inspired millions of kids to pick up cricket bats, 2021 inspired scores of girls to pick up hockey sticks. There will be a medal for the Indian women’s hockey team in the years to come. When it does come, we’ll know that it all started in an incredible fourteen-day spell in Tokyo.
And that legacy, is perhaps worth more than a medal.
Remember their names:
Navjot Kaur, 26, Kurukshetra, Haryana
Gurjit Kaur, 25, Miadi Kalan, Punjab
Deep Grace Ekka, 27, Lulkidhi, Odisha
Monika Malik, 28, Gamri, Haryana
Sharmila Devi, 20, Hisar, Haryana
Nikki Pradhan, 28, Hesal, Jharkhand
Savita Punia, 31, Jodhkan, Haryana
Nisha Warsi, 26, Sonipat, Haryana
Vandana Katariya, 29, Roshnabad, Uttarakhand
Udita Duhan, 23, Hisar, Haryana
Lalremsiami Hmar, 21, Kolasib, Mizoram
Navneet Kaur, 25, Shahabad Markanda, Haryana
Sushila Chanu, 29, Imphal, Manipur
Rani Rampal, 27, Shahabad Markanda, Haryana
Salima Tete, 19, Simdega, Jharkhand
Neha Goyal, 25, Sonipat, Haryana
The Indian women’s hockey team, our Team of the Year.