‘365 days more to prepare’: India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh on life amid lockdown and road to Tokyo Olympics
Participating for the first time at the Pro League in 2020, India’s hockey team found instant success. A win over the Netherlands in January was followed by a win over the World Champions Belgium in February. India also made a sensational comeback against Australia in the same month, and the team was looking all set for the Tokyo Olympics which was set to begin in July.
But the Covid-19 pandemic turned the sporting calendar upside down. The Pro League games were stopped. Soon after, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed for a year. In March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown. At the time, the Indian hockey teams, along with the coaching staff, had to remain inside the SAI center in Bengaluru, where they had been training before.
India goalkeeper PR Sreejesh who had to spend over three months away from wife and kids amid such unprecedented times recalls the life at SAI center amid lockdown. Speaking to Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview, Sreejesh also shared some special quarantine memories that he would cherish forever.
With the Tokyo Olympics set to take place next year, Sreejesh also opened up on the plans to prepare for the road ahead.
Q) You and the rest of the team were at SAI center when the lockdown was first announced in March. Tell us about those days?
“In the beginning, it was difficult because we were in a competitive state at the time. We were training mode, so starting was a bit tough. But overall, it did not make a huge difference because all of us were at SAI center and we were training together. When the lockdown happened, we were allowed to roam around the center in small groups to do routine exercises. The team was together, so it helped us in spending more together with each other, as we could not go for any outing or anything because of the lockdown. It was a bit tough, but we managed to make most of the time.”
Q) What lessons you learned during the lockdown period which will help you in your personal and professional life?
“We spent most of the lockdown period analyzing our opponents. During the tournaments and training period, it becomes really difficult to focus everything together. But during this time, we did a post-mortem of most of our matches, and what areas we can improve, and what mistakes we could rectify.
“On the personal front, I read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries which helped me to look at myself in a different way. When you look at other sportspersons and their journeys, you get some kind of inclination which you can apply in your career and in your performance.”
Q) How did you keep yourself positive and motivated being away from family amid such an unprecedented time?
“I think, being a parent, my first priority was to keep them safe. Keep my kids safe, my family safe. I was a bit worried about my father, he is over 60 years old, and he is a heart patient. I was a bit worried, as the news was suggesting that the disease put kids and senior citizens more at risk. Then, the situation in my village was really under control. So, I felt a bit relaxed and it helped me remain calm.
“If I had to return home, I was really concerned that I do not want to become a carrier of the virus. Because I had to travel from Bengaluru to Cochin to return home. So, I felt, as long as I am in a safer environment, and my family is in a safe environment, I am happy to be here. The situation in Kerala was under control, it helped me to stay calm.”
Q) How was that moment when you finally reached home after over three months at SAI center in Bengaluru?
“It was a good moment. I was really happy to meet my family. But what happened was that when I first reached home, I had to be under quarantine, as per the protocols. As per the state rules, I had to spend 14 days in room quarantine, and then further 14 days in-home quarantine. The first 14 days were really tough, you are at home, and you cannot mingle with your family. It was good that at least I could at least see them from my window.
“But then, I was able to spend some quality time with my family, and my parents. Before, whenever I used to go home, there used to be a lot of visitors, and I would be meeting a few people, doing some work, so I would never get quality time with my parents, and especially with my kids. This time, it was more free-minded time. I enjoyed this quarantine a lot from that aspect.”
Q) So, any special memories from this quarantine which you will remember forever?
“Oh, there are loads. We used to wake early. I used to wake up early and work out. My kids would create a situation to wake me up every morning, even though they know I am asleep. ‘Daddy, can you open this box, daddy, how can you use this function on mobile’. They make excuses to wake me up’. Secondly, playing ‘haathi’ with my kids, the kids game. It was a really good experience. I have never done that. When my daughter was born, I was busy with the 2014 schedule. Then, all the Commonwealth Games preparation, and tournaments, and every time I would reach home, I was busy. So, I really bonded well with my kids this time around.”
Q) How important is it to keep fit amid this free time?
“It’s a good thing we are getting another year for the Tokyo Olympics. I mean, definitely, when we heard first that Tokyo Olympics will get postponed, we were a bit disappointed. We were in a good situation. The Pro League games helped us gain a lot of confidence and we were looking towards the Olympic games. But Covid-19 disrupted everything. So, we thought about what is next? We should look at everything with a positive outlook. So, when I look at the Olympics next year, all I think is that we have another year to train. We got a year more to train ourselves and make sure we are in perfect shape for the Olympics. It is a task that our Olympic campaign is starting now, so we have another 365 days to train and get into shape.
“I, personally, keep smaller goals for me. I always try to next tournament and perform better, so I will be in shape till the next Olympics. So, my routine has changed. I am looking after my fitness and I am looking after my diet. Whenever I get a chance to speak to other goalkeepers, it also gives me confidence.”
Q) Would it be difficult for players to return to the same competitive level as they were before the lockdown?
“This scenario is with everyone in the world. Everyone is facing the same situation as us. I think it will definitely take some time to get that international level of playing. We are at least three months away from hockey, and four-five months of any competition. We are expecting our next tournament to be in November, which would be the Asian Championship. But I don’t think there is a need to take it as a negative aspect. We should take it as a personal challenge, so that we can work our own matches, and analyse our matches, on recognising which are the areas where we need to improve.
“Secondly, when we get on the field, we can utilise that homework and train accordingly. In one or two months, we can return to the same systematic manner of training.”
Q) Will the announcement of the FIH Pro League schedule for next year help you prepare for Tokyo Olympics?
“Yeah, definitely. The best part is that FIH has announced the Pro League schedule and Olympic schedule. So, it has given us more confidence that we already know this tournament is going to happen, so we need to be mentally and physically prepared. It has given us more spirits and energy to work really hard from now onwards. It is one of the things that will help us look forward. Without a clear goal in sight, we cannot be prepared for the future. Keeping that in mind, we will begin the campaign.”
Q) So, the target is still to win a medal at the Olympics?
“Definitely, 100 percent. For an athlete, an Olympic medal is the ultimate dream. We just want to be on the podium and grab the medal. Unfortunately, I have missed it two times, but this time, I want everyone to give their 100 percent to make that possible. And we can do that. When you are the top fourth-ranked team in the world, it’s just a matter of 0.1 percent extra. I definitely think we can realistically think of a good position at the Olympics.”