By PR Sreejesh, Indian men’s hockey team goalkeeper
Just like the millions of fans of Indian hockey, I have also had a very specific dream throughout my career, and that has been to win an Olympic medal for my country. The first time I stepped out as an Olympian in 2012 at the London Olympics, it was an experience I can never forget. Not because it was something that was very positive for me or our team, but because it was my first time at the biggest tournament in the world. The whole excitement around the team, and in the Olympic village is something you don’t experience, even during a World Cup.
I was 24 at that time, and we were in a very tough pool with eventual gold medallists Germany and silver medallists The Netherlands. I remember throughout the Pool stages, we ended up conceding first against The Netherlands, Germany, and South Korea, but were also able to equalise shortly in those matches. We had a good team, but I think we struggled to finish off those teams and it cost us. That tournament was a chance for me to learn so much, but one thing that I always had in the back of my head was that I needed to go home as a medallist, not just as a participant.
So when we were returning back home as the last placed team, it really bothered me and I decided that I’ll do everything to help my team get better in all departments so that when we play in the Rio Olympics in 2016, we are competing for the podium. Post 2012, I think our team really started working towards it as a collective unit. We started following a different approach towards big matches against strong teams, and I think our good performances in the 2014 Asian Games, 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 FIH World League Final, really helped build our confidence. We did have some changes in team management and in our teams as well, and I think there was always some sort of gradual improvement in our sides. From being 11th in the World Rankings in 2012, to climbing up to 5th by 2016, it was definitely something that really instilled a great sense of belief in our team even going into the 2016 Rio Olympics, where I was the Captain.
We had seven players from the 2012 team in our squad in Rio, and most of us were really confident of performing well and actually getting that elusive medal for India. I remember we started off really well by beating Ireland, losing a close match to eventual Bronze Medalists Germany, and then defeating eventual Gold Medalists Argentina. Two more close encounters in the Pool stages, and we were really confident about ourselves as we faced Belgium in the Quarter Finals. When I would look at other players in the dressing room, I could see how confident and how eager all of us were to perform and make it to the podium. However, that 1-3 defeat to Belgium was a huge setback. I remember at the time, I had said that we were touching the moon but couldn’t reach there, and it was true. After leading in that game, we conceded three bad goals and it felt like heartbreak.
It did take me some time to recover from it, but whenever people would ask me about it, it felt like someone had put a dagger in my chest – it really hurt. Same was the case with the 2018 World Cup as well – but having seen teams like Argentina and Belgium do well in big tournaments, I really believe that we will also have that opportunity to achieve something with this team. And the Tokyo Olympics is really something that I look forward to with huge aspirations. We have managed to bring in so many improvements across various aspects of our game, with our fitness being even better than most teams in the world. I think we have really improved on our technical side of things with a good structure, and brought more flair and dynamism to our attacking. I see so many younger players also coming in and performing extraordinarily against the top teams, which was something you would rarely see before.
Having achieved our best ranking ever of being 4th in the world, I feel like there is not much of a difference now, we have shown that in our FIH Pro League matches earlier this year, that we can beat anyone, and not just beat, but also dominate them with our style of play. With one year left for our preparations, I think it is going to be the biggest tournament for me as well, and something tells me that it is going to be a huge year for Indian hockey, and we can really bring that elusive Olympic medal back to our country if we perform to our potential in Tokyo next year.