The Indian women’s hockey team might have just missed a historic bronze medal, but they won everyone’s hearts. The staunchest of critics were made to sit up and applaud. This was just the third time in the history of the Games that the Indian women’s hockey team was making an appearance. They made it through to the semi-finals, for the first time ever, but then had to face two close defeats (vs Argentina and Great Britain) as they fell heartbreakingly short of what would have been a historic medal for Indian women’s hockey.
But, despite the fact that a medal was lost, the Tokyo Games campaign could well be a watershed moment for Indian women’s hockey overall.
Here’s a look at the hockey bravehearts who fought till the very end:
Rani (Captain and Forward) – 1 goal
Rani Rampal (PTI Photo)
Arguably India’s most successful player to date, Rani has been with the Indian team since the age of 14, when she made her debut at the 2008 Olympic qualifiers. The team lost to the USA and failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. But leading the team in 2015, it was a goal by Rani, who is the product of the famous women’s hockey nursery in Shahabad, which sealed India’s qualification for the Rio Games. Incidentally, it was again a goal scored by her in the qualifiers against USA in 2019 which booked a berth for the India women in their second consecutive Olympics for the Tokyo Games. Rani owes her success to childhood coach Baldev Singh who turned a six-year-old kid into a lethal striker and one of India’s best players. At the age of 15, Rani was the youngest player in the Indian team which played the 2010 World Cup. Rani hails from Shahabad Markanda in Haryana.
Vandana Katariya (Forward) – 4 goals
Vandana Katariya (AP Photo)
Vandana’s hat-trick in the must-win pool game against South Africa in Tokyo this time made her the first woman hockey player from India to score a hat-trick at the Olympics. The 29-year-old seasoned performer shot to fame at the 2013 junior World Cup, where India won a bronze medal. The prolific forward played a stellar role in the campaign scoring five goals. Her father passed away three months ago, and Covid-related restrictions didn’t allow her to leave the camp in Bengaluru and travel home to attend the last rites.
Neha Goyal (Midfielder) – 1 goal
Neha Goyal (Hockey India photo)
Neha broke into the junior India squad as a 14-year-old in 2011, after enduring a traumatic childhood. She was also part of India’s silver medal-winning 2018 Asian Games campaign. Hockey came into her life by way of her mother, who worked at a cycle factory and got Neha admitted in a hockey academy. She didn’t want her daughter’s mind to be scarred by the abuse Neha’s alcoholic father would subject her mother to.
Savita Punia (goal-keeper)
Savita Punia (Hockey India Photo)
Like goalkeeper PR Sreejesh is to the men’s team, Savita is the ‘Wall’ that guards the Indian women team’s post with stupendous success. A product of the Sports Authority of India academy in Hisar, Haryana, Savita is one of the pillars of the team along with the likes of Rani and Vandana. The veteran custodian has been instrumental in India’s historic campaign in Tokyo, and has medals from the 2014 (bronze) and 2018 (silver) Asian Games to her name.
Navneet Kaur (Forward) – 1 goal
Navneet Kaur (Reuters Photo)
Navneet is one of the three players in India’s Tokyo Olympics squad, who are a product of the Shahabad academy, with Rani and Navjot Kaur being the other two. Her father, Buta Singh, used to assist coach Baldev Singh with paperwork at the Shahabad academy, while her daughter honed her hockey skills. A consistently-scoring forward, Navneet was the one who converted the penalty stroke that won India the bronze medal at 2013 Junior World Cup. In Tokyo as well, it was her goal in the 1-0 win over Ireland that kept India in the hunt for a place in the quarterfinals.
Lalremsiami (AFP Photo)
The brightest young striker of the team and a Youth Olympics silver medallist, Lalremsiami’s team-first mentality rubs off on her co-players. The 21-year-old has also been the 2019 FIH Women’s Rising Star of the Year. She faced serious language issues after breaking into the national team, since she was only fluent in her local Mizoram language, but she has come a long way since then. Her self-less and team-first mentality showed up in her decision to not leave the team during the FIH Series Finals in Hiroshima for the funeral of her father, who died a day before the team’s semifinal.
Gurjit Kaur (Defender & Drag-Flicker) – 4 goals
Gurjit Kaur (Reuters Photo)
This defender is considered the best drag-flicker any Indian women’s team has produced to date. It was her penalty-corner conversion in the quarterfinal against Australia that took India through to its maiden and historic Olympic semifinal with a 1-0 victory against strong gold-medal favourites. The Amritsar girl belongs to a humble farming family and developed a love for hockey during her schooldays.
Deep Grace Ekka (Defender)
Deep Grace Ekka (ANI Photo)
The dependable defender first held a hockey stick when she was 12, but like her brother, Grace wanted to put on the goalkeeping pads. However, she was advised to shun the idea. That’s when she started working on her skills as a defender and hasn’t looked back since. She was also part of India’s 2014 and 2018 podium finishes at the Asian Games.
Sushila Chanu (Midfielder)
Sushila Chanu (AP Photo)
The Rio 2016 captain missed the 2018 World Cup and Asian Games because of an injury, but the midfielder, who turned a seasoned pro since her days as the 2013 Junior World Cup bronze medallist, not only recovered well, but also played the influential role of a senior member in the Tokyo campaign.
Nikki Pradhan (Defender)
Nikki Pradhan (Reuters Photo)
It’s not easy to grow in the Naxalite-infested region of Jharkhand and dream of playing for India. Defender Nikki managed to do that, tiding over a number of other troubles and also made it to the Olympic squad to become a living example of ‘dreams coming true’.
Salima Tete (Midfielder)
Salima Tete (Reuters Photo)
The teenage midfielder from Jharkhand led the country’s historic 2018 Youth Olympics campaign, where India ended up winning a silver medal. She started playing hockey with wooden sticks. Her village had just one television set and that too didn’t work properly. Reportedly, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren got a Smart TV installed at her residence, so that the family could proudly watch their daughter play.
Udita Duhan (Defender)
Udita Duhan (ANI Photo)
Haryana girl Udita made it to the senior India squad in 2017. Her love for handball in the initial years turned into a passion for hockey and it didn’t take long for her to learn the skills and move up the ranks in the domestic structure to knock on the national team selection door.
Nisha Warsi (Midfielder)
Neha Warsi (Hockey India Photo)
Nisha made her international debut only as recently as 2019 and didn’t get many chances to showcase her skills at the top level after Covid-19 struck the world at the beginning of 2020. Supported by a family with meager means, Nisha will now be proud of having represented the Indian women’s team at its joint most successful Olympic outing ever.
Monika Malik (Midfielder)
Monika Malik (Reuters Photo)
Monika’s playmaking skills from the midfield are highly regarded in the Indian circuit, which has made her a crucial member of the squad and her experience counted when it mattered the most during the crunch games at Tokyo 2020.
Sharmila Devi (Forward) – 1 goal
Sharmila Devi (AP Photo)
Another baby of the squad, Sharmila has made giant strides in Tokyo as a fearless striker with breathtaking runs down the flanks. She flew to Tokyo with an experience of just nine international games but will return as one of the biggest positives of India’s campaign that saw them end with a very creditable 4th place finish.
Navjot Kaur (Midfielder)
Navjot Kaur (Reuters Photo)
The Shahabad midfielder appeared on the international turf in 2012 for the first time and has never looked back since. Another player from a humble background, Navjot is a key figure in the Indian team.