Women's World Cup 2018: Battling poverty, self-doubt, striker Vandana Katariya surpasses the magic 200 mark
Post a stupendous show at the Commonwealth Games, the Golden Girls traveled to Korea to defend the crown they had earned at the Asian Champions Trophy at Singapore in 2016.
Missing from the squad was the inspirational captain Rani Rampal who had been in ominous form at Gold Coast. The team's most experienced striker was being rested for the crucial tournament as the Indian girls descended at Donghae to reassert their continental supremacy.
A recuperating Rani followed the proceedings from India as the strikers ran amok, creating havoc in the opposition circle and leaving their opponents benumbed. Forwards Lalremsiani, Navneet Kaur, and Anupa Barla excelled as did Navjot Kaur who played the role of an attacking midfielder.
Leading the Indian attack was Vandana Katariya who scored against the Chinese and the Malaysians, strung up some spectacular moves, and deservedly won the Player of the Tournament Award.
Last month, the Indian girls traveled to Spain as part of a preparatory tour ahead of the World Cup but lost the first match and drew the second.
At the Consejo Superior de Deportes Hockey Stadium in Madrid, the Indian eves came from behind in the next match to record their first victory of the Test series as a celebration of Vandana's 200th international cap.
It is almost a decade now since her voyage in the world of international hockey began, as she assisted her side to bronze medals in Junior Women's World Cup and Junior Women's Asia Cup with a goalscoring blitz in 2013. As a reward for her immense contribution to the team's success, she was honored with Hockey India's Player of the Year award in 2014.
Further success followed as the 26-year-old veteran is now an integral part of the senior side that won gold in the Asian Champions Trophy in 2016 and the Asia Cup last year.
Sounds like a stupendous success story?
Quite so, but Sportskeeda delved a little deeper to discover a soul-stirring account of a young girl's struggle to combat excruciating poverty, and vanquish defeatist and suicidal ideations on her way to becoming a champion striker.
Here are the excerpts of the interview:
Sportskeeda: Your performance in the Asian Champions Trophy was outstanding. Describe for us how the silver-medal winning effort in Korea was?
Vandana: After a great show at the Commonwealth Games, the confidence of the girls was extremely high. I was the most experienced striker at the Asian Champions Trophy and I had to raise my game to help the team. It was important to play in tandem with the other forwards in the team and score some good goals.
We had an aim, throughout the tournament, to try and take the lead early and earn as many PCs as we could. We have a good drag-flicker so it was important to earn PCs.
The Koreans are a very good side and it was a great game as both sides fought hard (in the final). We should have converted the few chances that came our way. Both teams wanted to win the gold badly but only one team can win a match. After the loss in the final, we worked very hard to overcome our flaws.
Sportskeeda: The team surpassed the expectations of many by reaching the semifinal at Gold Coast. What was the mood like during the course of the tournament?
Vandana: We were very well prepared for the tournament. The coaches helped to keep the entire team motivated. The senior players too kept the juniors motivated. It wasn't as if a few players excelled and the others did not. The entire team did well as a unit.
We wanted to do well so as to improve the standard of the women's game in the country.
Sportskeeda: How difficult was it for you to make a transition to the senior team after having played at the junior level?
Vandana: When I made my debut, there were senior players in the team like Saba Anjum and I took time to settle in. Gradually, I began to shed my inhibitions and played without fear. I learned to play without fear and used the experience gained by me as a junior player at the senior level.
Confidence is the key, and if one is confident, performance always improves irrespective of whether one is a senior or junior. It also does not matter whether the opponent is England or Holland.
Sportskeeda: A lot of the players in the team are from Punjab, Jharkhand, and Odisha. What inspired you to start playing hockey in Uttar Pradesh?
Vandana: I hail from a very humble background. Things are better now but as I was growing up, I have faced the worst. The silver lining was that my father was interested in hockey and he was keen that I take up the game. I started playing hockey when I was in Meerut but financial support was hard to come by.
Owing to the harsh realities of life, my family tried to dissuade me from pursuing the game. My father used to struggle to arrange money for me from sources that I was unaware of. When I moved to a hostel, I was in a dilemma as to whether I should continue playing and whether I would be able to support my father by doing so.
I practiced very hard but in 2009, I failed to retain my place in the hockey camp. My morale touched a new low and I even contemplated suicide at that point. I was selected for the camp again in 2011 and entered the team directly. In the intervening period, I was at Bhopal and my friends supported me through a bad phase.
My friends convinced me that I had enough talent to make a mark and asked me to keep trying. When I was alone, however, I felt that I did not want to exist, as life had no meaning. Arranging a paltry sum of fifty rupees used to be a tall order for me back then.
My family and I faced taunts because I used to play a sport being a girl and the taunts increased as I grew up.
Sportskeeda: Have things changed now? What is the atmosphere like when you pay a visit to your home village?
Vandana: When I go home now, I am always welcomed. The folks in my village welcome me with drums when I return with a medal. After I joined the Indian team, many young girls from my village Roshanabad and nearly villages like Aurangabad have taken up hockey in a big way. In fact, the majority of hockey players in that area are girls.
Sportskeeda: Can you describe for us how challenging it is to keep up with the schedule at the SAI camp ahead of the World Cup and Asian Games?
Vandana: We typically wake up at 6 in the morning each day and engage in activities like a prayer which calms our mind ahead of the practice session. Following breakfast at 8, we practice for a duration of between 2 to 2-1/2 hours. When we go to our rooms after the session, we try to focus mentally on how we can do better for the team.
Some opt for extra practice, while others have to spend time on recovery or go to the gym. After lunch, we have a session with our psychologist (Priyanka) and return to the ground for another session. In the evening, we try to focus on the mental aspect and prepare for the next day. We have team meetings in the evening followed by dinner.
All lights must be off in our rooms by 10 o'clock.
We have worked extremely hard ahead of the World Cup and we are just as excited to be part of such a huge event. We are fully prepared for the first match as we have beaten England in the Commonwealth Games and our fitness levels are second to none