Savita Punia, Vandana Katariya reflect on life after India women hockey team's historic performance at Tokyo Olympics
When India women's hockey team lost their first three games against the Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics in July, it seemed like their campaign once again might be over without earning promotion from the group stage. But led by captain Rani Rampal and coach Sjoerd Marijne, the team bounced back to defeat Ireland 1-0, and South Africa 4-3 to reach the quarterfinals.
But it was the shock 1-0 win over Australia in the quarterfinal that really set the momentum up for the women's hockey team. It was the first time India reached the semifinal at the Games in women's hockey, and competed for a medal. Unfortunately, India lost a thrilling encounter against Argentina 1-2 and missed out on a medal. But the sporting world, and the Indian hockey fans applauded the efforts displayed by the team, nonetheless, with even Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulating them on a phone call after the match.
Vandana Katariya who scored a hat-trick against South Africa at the Games, and India's wall in defence, goalkeeper Savita spoke to Hindustan Times in an interaction organised by sports brand Puma as part of their PUMA ATHLETE initiative, and the duo spoke about how the lives of hockey players have changed since Tokyo. The two also spoke about what the future holds for Indian hockey:
Q1) How have things changed for Indian women's hockey after Tokyo Olympics?
Savita: "The biggest difference that we have seen is that ever since we have returned, we all have received immense love and respect from everyone. We feel the same in our final two days in Tokyo. PM Modi spoke to us, and we were receiving well wishes from everyone from India. We continue to receive such attention, so obviously, a lot has changed for hockey after Tokyo Olympics."
Vandana Katariya: "As Savita said, when we went back to our villages after returning to India, even in our villages, everyone is talking about hockey, they learned about the rules of hockey. I felt so good listening to that - people telling me that we should do this and that during penalty corners, so it made me feel really good that people have started knowing so much about hockey."
Q2) Coach Sjoerd Marijne said the team was really disappointed after the semifinal loss, but added that they will know in a couple of days what they have achieved. Have you realised it now?
Vandana Katariya: "Coach Sjoerd's Marijne was absolutely right that when we reach India we would realise what we have achieved. It feels really good that everyone is receiving such respect, and honour from everyone."
Savita: "At that point, we were really upset that we had missed a medal so we did not realise it. But Sjoerd sir had a meeting with us and he said 'I realise what you have achieved, and you guys will realise it to when you reach India'. And he was right, when we reached India, people never made us feel that we lost a match or we came without a medal. People welcomed us with full hearts."
WATCH | Savita Punia, Vandana Katariya on life after Tokyo Olympics
Q3) Vandana - you became the first Indian women's hockey player to score a hat-trick at the Games. How do you feel about this achievement?
Vandana Katariya: "I felt really nice when I scored a hat-trick. We had lost three consecutive games. After the loss against England, we had decided that we have to improve our individual performances and then we have to play as an individual team. After performing as an individual, I managed to help the team and helped us pick an important win, so it was a great moment for me, because of which we were able to reach the semifinal."
Q4) Savita - as a senior player and the vice-captain of the team, how important was the Covid-19 lockdown period for you and the rest of the team for team-building and increasing team unity?
Savita: "The Covid-19 pandemic was a tough time for the entire world. But we used the initial lockdown in quite a positive way. At that point, we could not play hockey. We had no exposure. We were stuck at the SAI center in Bengaluru. So we focused on our team bonding and team unity. Our staff also helped us. Janneke Schopman gave us a lot of time to understand how to remain mentally strong, and how to bridge the gap between seniors and juniors. It really helped us during this Olympics. As a senior player, it is our duty to take everyone forward as a team - and we really worked on it for a long time."
Q5) How do players and the team deal with the negative comments that come from certain corners of social media?
Savita: "In India, the biggest thing is people only care about winning. And when we lose even one game, we have to hear negative comments. This has been going on forever. Even at the last Olympics, we faced the same thing. Because of this, we as a team, before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, decided that we will remain away from social media. We had just one Whatsapp group in which all the team players can send and receive their messages - we were away from the rest of the social media. Because experienced players still know how to handle feedback. But it is very important for young players to remain away from these things so that they can focus on their game. So, we took this decision keeping our young players in mind. Despite losing three games, we had faith in our team we will make a comeback because of the hard work we had done in the past five years."
Vandana Katariya: "All I want to say is that people always appreciate the winners, but they should also always appreciate the efforts of those who did not win to motivate them. So that they can play better in the coming games."
Q6) What influence did Sjoerd Marijne had on the team and how do you see the team evolving under Janneke Schopman now?
Savita: "Best bit about Sjoerd Marijne's presence was his positive outlook. He wanted to make this achieve big things, especially at the Olympics. He wanted us to create history, to become iconic in India, and to open doors for women in India. That really inspired us all. He was not an Indian, but he had so much faith that his team can do better - so his positive attitude really inspired us. Also, he had already told us that he would leave after the Olympics to be with his family. But just so that the team is not left without a direction or a coach after he leaves, he called Janneke Schopman, who will be our head coach now. I feel that decision was really good for us. She is such a young and good coach, and she is already an Olympic gold medalist. Her best feature is that she focuses on individual player's strengths and believes a lot in team unity. She has worked a lot on us in the past couple of years which really helped us in Tokyo.
Vandana Katariya: "Sjoerd sir motivated us a lot on the field, off the field. He was a really positive person. He never thought that I am from the Netherlands - he always thought that he was with the Indian team and he wanted the Indian team to achieve big things. We won the hearts of the nation because of his. Janneke Schopman, since she has arrived has taught us how to handle pressure. She has always told us that feeling the pressure is quite normal - but one must know how to handle it. She taught us how to be mentally strong. She is always ready to individually help out a player because of which we have really improved, which everyone saw in Tokyo."
Q7) Time for India to bid for hosting the women's Hockey World Cup in India?
Savita: "Yes, of course. Men's team matches have been happening in Bhubaneswar for the past few years and the crowd gathers in large numbers to showcase their support and love for hockey. So, I feel it will be helpful for the women's team to play against top-level teams that compete at the World Cup in front of Indian crowds as well, as it will boost us and improve our performance, just how competing against top teams like Germany, Argentina, and England - built our confidence before Tokyo Olympics. If India hosts the women's hockey world cup, it will be a big occasion for hockey."
Vandana Katariya: "Playing in front of big Indian crowds will help the women's team and will motivate us to play better. After Tokyo Olympics, people have started loving and following hockey even more. So, we are also really passionate to play in front of Indian fans and compete against top teams. It will also help in the improvement of the team."