The COVID-19 pandemic played a big part in helping the Indian hockey team's dragflicker Varun Kumar realize his dream of winning an Olympic medal.
The defender did not make it to the 16-member squad for the Olympics at first. But when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed teams to have two more players, owing to the coronavirus scare, Varun Kumar’s name was included as an alternate athlete.
Varun Kumar was part of the 2016 Indian junior hockey team when they won the World Cup. He also played an integral part in India’s 3-1 win over Argentina in the group stages of the Tokyo Olympics. Scoring India’s first goal, Varun Kumar set the tempo as India went on to decimate the then reigning Olympic champions.
Looking back, Varun Kumar said he felt very fortunate to be a part of the history making Indian men’s hockey team. 'However, he also expressed his disappointment at the fact that he didn't feature in the 16-member squad initially.
"'When the squad for the Olympics was announced, my name was not part of the 16-member squad," Varun said in a conversation with Sportskeeda.'
'I still remember that day very well and I was evidently disappointed. However, a few days after the IOC allowed hockey teams to expand to 18 players, Simranjeet and I were called up as replacement athletes.
'It came as a huge relief but somewhere in the back of my mind I was still upset about not making it to the final 16 and I really wanted to prove myself."
Varun Kumar's chat with Manpreet Singh changed his mindset
A chat with Indian men’s hockey team skipper Manpreet Singh helped Varun Kumar a lot. Varun Kumar and Manpreet Singh hail from the same place i.e., Mithapur in Punjab. They even plied their trade in the same hockey academy in their formative years.
Manpreet Singh advised Varun Kumar not to be hard on himself and that helped him with his overall thought process. Varun Kumar explained:
"It really helped that Manpreet had a long chat and pumped me up mentally. Manpreet has been a big influence in my career from a very young age as we played in the same hockey academy and him talking to me made a lot of difference.
'I stopped beating myself up for not being good enough to make the 16-member squad. I started focusing on how I can make this opportunity count and deliver when the team needs me.”
Varun Kumar did follow his captain’s advice, and he eventually became one of the most important players for India at the Tokyo Olympics. He stepped up when it mattered and even scored India’s first goal against Argentina in the group stages.
“It was indeed a fantastic experience in Tokyo. Winning the bronze medal and standing on the podium along with my teammates is perhaps the best moment of my life. Now, my priority will be to improve in every aspect. We have had a good break after the Olympics and we are all waiting to return to the national camp next month.”
The Indian men’s hockey team will start their national camp at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus in Bengaluru for the upcoming season. The Indian women’s hockey team had commenced their camp a few days before.