“The target for Asian Games is gold,” says Vandana Katariya firmly. Twelve months ago a statement like that would have raised a few eyebrows; her team’s collective ambition dismissed as wishful thinking. Not after the kind of year Indian women’s hockey has had though. We now understand what the women knew all along: The Indian hockey team is no longer also-rans, or living off legacy. They are here to contend for the biggest prizes, against the best teams.
At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the Indian women’s team delivered their best performance yet, reaching the semi-finals of the Games for the very first time. Katariya played a big role in the team’s magnificent comeback after they had lost the first three matches in the group stage. The 30-year-old forward scored a hat-trick, the first by an Indian woman at the Olympics, as India defeated South Africa 4-3 to sneak into the quarterfinals. In many ways, Katariya typifies the story of women’s hockey in the country.
Hockey wasn’t the part of the fabric of her village Roshanabad, near Haridwar. Her father Nahar Singh was a master technician at Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), who worked hard to ensure his wife and nine children were well provided for. A wrestling enthusiast, Nahar Singh was the reason why all his children took to sport. But there were the all too familiar taunts from the relatives over his daughters being involved in sport.
“At home, my brothers would be told, ‘ladki hai, usko bahar mat bhejo, baad me to kaam gharka hi karna hai, (don’t let the girls leave the house, they’ll have to do housework in the future anyway)” Katariya recalls. But with her father’s staunch support, she earned her a place at the Government Sports Hostel in Lucknow. Though Katariya remained oblivious to most of the negativity in the early years, it came to haunt her when she was dropped from the senior India camp in 2009. “At that time, I thought my life is over,” she says. “I was about 17-18 so I thought I couldn’t do anything after this. I was thinking, ‘How do I go back to my village like this?’”
Katariya left Lucknow, put her hockey dreams on pause and got a job as a junior ticket collector in Central Railways in Mumbai. Even though she joined the Centre for Excellence in Bhopal, she says her heart was not in it. “I wasn’t too interested and was thinking of going back home. But the day I was planning to leave, the players and coaches hid my bag so I couldn’t go. They told me I was talented and needed to work harder,” she says. Even though she is now one of the hardiest members of the team, fitness, she identified, was one of her weaknesses then.
“In those days, I was not very confident,” says Katariya. “But my family had been through a lot, financially and otherwise. It was just the thought of helping them, trying to make their life better that kept me going. When I used to go to hockey camps, our food, things like hockey sticks and shoes would be provided to us. I thought if I can work harder maybe I can make something of my talent.”
The wiry forward made a return to the India camp in 2011. Since then, she has ridden the highs and lows of Indian hockey. She was there when India won their first ever medal, a bronze, at the Junior Women’s World Cup in 2013, when the team earned a berth for the 2016 Olympics; when they had scooped a silver at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta; and finally, the historic fourth-place finish at Tokyo.
While India’s campaign at the Rio Games was unremarkable—they didn’t win any of their five matches and finished last of 12 teams—the players knew qualifying for the Games had already been a step up. After that, they were put through some punishing training by coach Sjoerd Marijne and the team’s scientific advisor Wayne Lombard. Players were also taught mental techniques to resist pressure in crunch moments.
“Pressure is normal. It is up to us whether we let it become big and scare us or not,” says Katariya, who has played for India 258 times. “Slowly, once we started winning these titles, the confidence started to grow. On the training pitch, we put in hundred percent as a team. We fight right till the end now. Earlier we used to be intimidated by teams like Germany, Holland but not anymore.”
When the pandemic struck, the team was forced to stay behind at the SAI complex in Bengaluru. In troubling times, this forged a deeper bond within the team. But last April, almost exactly a year ago, her world was turned upside down once again when she lost her father. With India reeling under the second wave then, she could not travel from Bengaluru to attend her father’s funeral. Katariya was also recovering from an ankle injury at that point.
“That time also I felt like I won’t be able to get back on my feet,” she says. “But (her teammates) helped me get back on the ground, told me, ‘We need you.’” The players made sure she was never left alone with her dark thoughts. “We can’t achieve anything on our own,” she adds. Katariya talks about how they have built an incredible team culture, where every player is treated as an equal, not senior or junior, where everyone’s problems are heard and helped. Team ethos, a team mindset, team play: The things that had been drilled into them during training reflected on the field in Tokyo, as India fought back to get to the quarterfinals after a slow start to the campaign.
“After India lost to Great Britain (the third group stage match) we felt like it’s all over,” she says. “Our coach was very angry and we had a team meeting for almost two hours. But after the meeting I told myself that whatever I had left in me, I would put it on the line. Everyone tells me I am one of the hardest workers in the team, this was the time to test that.”
The comeback started with a low-key 1-0 win over Ireland; and then, the stunner against South Africa. Even though Katariya’s hat-trick was pivotal to India coming alive in the tournament, she refuses to bask in any individual glory. India defeated heavyweights Australia in the quarterfinals, to enter the final four for the very first time. A few hours after India’s semi-final defeat, however, a few men hurled casteist slurs against Katariya at her family home. Katariya, though, prefers not to talk about it.
“Even earlier when people in my village used to taunt us, I never said anything. Neither did my father,” she says. “My father always told me the best way to reply is through your work. He told me that sometimes the path we take will be full of thorns. There will be brickbats. But we should not falter or leave that path, just follow it,” she says in measured tones.
Even as she has stuck with this belief, the villagers who once discouraged her parents have turned into hockey enthusiasts. In her early years, she could not represent her home town because they didn’t have a hockey team and she ended up playing for Meerut instead. But Katariya, a firm believer in sport as an agent of change, says women’s hockey is now the pre-dominant sport back home.
Katariya was awarded the Padma Shri earlier this year, and is now gathering strength for another big sporting year, as the women’s team prepare to compete in the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Cup. “The team has improved a lot, and we want to show that at the World Cup and hopefully reach the finals,” says Katariya, before boldly revealing the target for the Asiad in Hangzhou, China. The Indian women’s team hasn’t won a gold medal at the Asian Games since its inaugural edition in 1982. It’s time for an encore.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.