"Siami is the bravest girl I have known" says Indian hockey midfielder Monika
The mood in the Indian camp is one of controlled ebullience - although the ghosts of 2018 have been largely overcome, the girls are still one tantalizing step away from booking a ticket to the Games in Tokyo.
The past year was one in which the Indian eves shone on the pitch like never before, only to squander the initiative to teams like Ireland and Japan in the World Cup and Asian Games respectively.
Both Ireland and Japan were defeated by Sjoerd Marijne's determined side earlier this year -and if the Indian girls manage to get past the Hockeyroos (who they lost narrowly to in the semifinal of the 2018 Commonwealth Games) it will indeed be the icing on the cake for a team which is growing in confidence and stature with every encounter.
At Gold Coast last year, the Indian eves coached by Harendra Singh matched the Aussies in every department but a controversial goal which continues to haunt the girls proved to be their undoing.
Rani Rampal and co. will have revenge on their minds when they take on the Australians (who won silver in the recently-concluded Pro League) as part of an Olympic Test event that also features China and hosts Japan.
"Our aim, primarily, is to prove to ourselves that we are a better unit than we were at Gold Coast last year- I feel we can beat Australia this time" opines Indian midfielder Monika Malik.
The confidence is far from unfounded as the lass from Haryana has been around long enough to appreciate what it takes to take on a truly world-class side.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, the seasoned campaigner shares a wealth of knowledge about how Indian hockey has evolved over the past decade, delves into her formative years, and gives us a first-hand account of teammate Lalremsiami's courage which came to the fore in Hiroshima last month.
Unlike a few of her teammates who faced quite a bit of opposition when they made their hockey ambitions known to their families, Monika's father not only encouraged her to take up sports but went to the extent of travelling between cities to procure the best possible nutrition to help her excel.
"My father used to travel to Delhi to buy almonds for me"
"I never thought I would be good enough to play for the Indian team but I loved sports from when I was a child. I belong to a middle-class family and my father who was a police constable back then supported our large joint family."
"Life in Chandigarh was tough as my father was the sole bread earner but in spite of meagre earnings, he used to get almonds and rock sugar for us from Delhi as provisions were cheaper there."
"All my teachers knew my father as he used to come over to school only to feed me almonds."
Hard work came naturally to the girl who had a natural affinity for all forms of outdoor sport and was willing to put in long hours to practise the game of her choice.
"No one in my family ever prevented me from pursuing sport although not many girls in my housing society did the same. I used to play a variety of outdoor games including Gilli Danda and I loved sport in general."
"I used to cycle from Sector 44 to Sector 18 in Chandigarh for two practice sessions a day. It was extremely difficult to cover the distance twice a day and more often than not it used to get pretty dark by the time I returned home."
Although Monika was interested in athletics as well, her love for hockey knew no bounds and after a stint in an academy in 2009, there was just no question of looking back.
"I was keen on athletics but very soon my interest in hockey outweighed all else, and perfecting my stick skills became the primary objective."
"My father did have a great deal of affinity for wrestling but since hockey was my first love, he never forced me to become a wrestler."
"When I joined the hockey academy in 2009, I was under the tutelage of Olympian gold-medalist Rajinder Singh Sr. who taught me the fundamentals of hockey. In 2009, I was picked for the junior camp and made it to the team which toured China."
"In 2011, I was picked for the senior camp and was determined to cement my place in the national team to justify the hours of hard work and practise that I had put in. We had to be extremely disciplined about maintaining a strict regimen concerning diet and exercise."
Monika, who represented the national side in the 2014 Asian Games has witnessed how the Indian team has transformed from being a doggedly defensive bunch who seldom attacked to now possessing breathtaking firepower in and around the attacking circle.
"We are a lot more attacking now"
"We used to play very defensively in the past and the focus used to be on defence primarily. We seldom attacked in the past. The current team continues to be very strong defensively but we also focus a lot on attacking hockey."
"After Sjoerd Sir joined, we began playing fast and attacking hockey. Back in 2014, we were a young and inexperienced side and skill levels were not particularly high. Give and go hockey, one-to-one hockey, and overlapping are areas that all the girls strive to perfect in the current set-up."
"Coaches from rival teams often comment that as a team we are much faster now."
Budding talents have their role models and Monika was particularly influenced by Deepak Thakur, Prabhjot Singh, and Dhanraj Pillai.
"Quite honestly, I was influenced by veterans like Deepak Thakur as he played in Chandigarh quite often as did Prabhjot bhaiyya (Prabhjot Singh). Dhanraj Pillai was another stalwart who I looked up to and sought to emulate."
The Indian girls are understandably proud of their title triumph at the FIH Series Finals where they defeated the Asian Games champions in their backyard.
"We wanted the Japanese to know that we were, without doubt, the better side - we were the better side in Jakarta too but failed to get past the line in the Asian Games final."
Behind the Hiroshima success story, there lies another equally inspiring incident that will be remembered by the Golden Girls and their fans for a very long time to come.
Young Mizo striker Lalremsiami lost her father on the eve of the vital semifinal tie against Chile. Incidentally, a victory in the semifinals was precisely what the Indians needed to make it to the Olympic qualifiers and the news of the tragedy jolted the girls.
"When we got the news that Siami's father had passed away we were stunned and were unsure as to how to break the news to her."
"As a team, we decided not to cry or show too much emotion in front of her and to make her understand that it was impossible to alter what had transpired."
"I have yet to come across a stronger willed player than Siami."
"Siami displayed exemplary courage and self-control as she did not cry either at lunchtime or at dinner."
"She cried all night before the semifinals, however, and had a headache the next morning, but still decided to play the next day. I salute her spirit as she gave her all for the team in the two most vital matches - the semifinals and the finals, and helped us prevail."
"I would say that Siami inspired us - she was the one who needed the support but her courage helped us perform."
''Playing against Australia is an exhilarating experience"
The task before the Indians is still not complete - a fact that the girls are more than aware of - but as a team, the focus, for now, is not on the Olympic qualifiers but on the Tests in Japan which will be played in August.
"Our main focus now is the tour to Japan where we will face China and Australia apart from the hosts Japan."
Memories of Gold Coast 2018 are still fresh in the minds of the girls. Grace Stewart's goal which could have been deemed to be from a dangerous ball sunk Indian hopes after Harendra's team had lost their referral early.
Yet, the 25-year-old reckons that playing against the Australians is just as enjoyable as it is challenging.
"Playing against Australia is an exhilarating experience as they engage in open hockey and allow the other side to play their game. In stark contrast, there are sides which may be termed irritating as they bottle you up - they do not play their game and do not allow the other side to play freely as well."
From conducting poojas (prayers) before tournaments to organizing parties after successful competitions, Monika's relatives are closely involved with her exploits on the pitch.
"All my relatives get very worried when I get injured. Before tournaments, they hold poojas for me and celebrate with parties once I get home."
"Our main focus is to qualify for the Olympics and we will truly celebrate only once we get there."