On many counts, Vandana Kataria’s story is similar to the Women’s hockey team. A struggle at first, with little support, the long fight onto the big stage, having to summon self-belief repeatedly, proving doubters wrong and reaching the target with sheer determination.
Vandana Kataria began humbly, from the village of Roshanabad, and has steadily made her way to the top. It was never an easy path, what with the hurdles the absolute lack of facilities could pose. But she had her backers - like her father, a former employee of BHEL. A local wrestler at an ‘akhaada’, he was a sports enthusiast who pushed his children to excel in the fields they chose, and he believed in her ability.
He had passed on those sporting genes, and most of his children are successful athletes now. “My younger brother plays football and also coaches part-time. Another brother is an international Taekwondo athlete. One sister also plays hockey like me,” she says, proudly. With seven children altogether in the family, this is no mean feat. Especially if everyone in the neighbourhood openly discouraged ‘girls in sports’. After she started being picked regularly for various state and national camps from the Sports Hostel in Lucknow, her family gained confidence. She was called for the senior national camp in 2007, and there was no looking back.
If we had such infrastructure right from the start, we would have been even better at the game
For Vandana, it seems incredible that she plays with the players she looked up to in her first camp.
“In my first camp at Lucknow, Saba di( Saba Anju Karim), Mamta (Mamta Kharab) di, Surinder di (Surinder Kaur) and Deepika di (Deepika Thakur) were already in. I used to play centre-forward then. I watched Deepika Thakur di play then, and she has been my idol since. It’s amazing that we play together now.”
Quick on the feet herself, Vandana says she looks up to Anita Punt(McLaren), who plays forward for the New Zealand women’s team. She then goes on to talk about qualifying for the Olympics and the team’s preparation.
“We have qualified for the Olympics for the first time after 36 years. It feels good to know we are going to the Olympics for the first time. I hadn’t ever really thought about it. It was a small dream that I would play at the Olympics. For this, I have worked hard and practiced hard, but I never really thought we would qualify.
“Now the main focus is on the tournament in Australia (Four Nation tournament). Playing in this tournament against these teams is important because we will play against the same opposition in the Olympics,” she adds.
From where Vandana comes, proper facilities are far and few. She has very less complaints though, even as she admits that better infrastructure earlier would have given them a stronger foundation.
“We come from a very backward background and had very few facilities at the hostel. We practiced on grass-fields. Coming to this level, we see a lot of changes. There is a turf court and other facilities befitting senior professionals. Initially we had a lot of trouble (adjusting to astro-turf). But now we spend most of our time at the camp, so it’s not an issue anymore. We go back only for a few days and it’s ok.
“If we had such infrastructure right from the start, we would have been even better at the game,” she says.
The Indian team is the lowest-ranked team in the Pool B at the Olympics. Even with favorites like Argentina, Australia, and Great Britain in the pool, Vandana says the team will not be overwhelmed.
“It has been 5 months since we’ve started training. Every player knows their job and their responsibility inside out. Each of us is working hard and we are not going to approach any team based on their ranking. We would work as a team and put our best foot forward.”
Once we enter the field, once we cross that sacred line, we switch ourselves into the zone. We give in 100% and practice devoutly.
She is confident about the preparation for the Rio Games and clearly knows the strength of the team and their weaknesses.
“The team we have now is pretty much experienced. Most players have played over a 100 matches, I myself have played about 125. So there is no dearth in experience. We aren’t lacking in skill either and we have been constantly working on our fitness. The training for the marquee event has been very good so far.
“Both the teams, men or women are very skilled. Some of us are quick, some very skilled. But our body strength and physical game are weaker than theirs(European and Australian). So they tend to play a more physical game while we focus on technique,” she continues.
The women’s team realises the importance of qualifying for the Olympics, after 36 years. They have been putting in the hard yards, and training, Vandana says, is like worship.
“Once we enter the field, once we cross that sacred line, we switch ourselves into the zone. We give in 100% and practice devoutly. We have been working hard, sweating it out and I think in the process we are also getting fitter.”
Playing for the country, requires a lot of sacrifices. Family and fun, are infrequent luxuries.
“I feel very bad (about not going home).My family is pretty busy in their lives. So it’s tough for them to come here. After Australia, we have a short break. That is when I will return home for a re-union after almost a year and a half,” she signs off.
The uncanny similarities between the player and the team are many. The struggles, the stories, the journey from obscurity to the Olympics to make history, and the perseverance are all visible. The sacrifices Vandana has made are many, and without a doubt, so has the complete team. It is a story that you cannot ignore and one you cannot stop yourself from rooting for.
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