Updated: August 7, 2021 12:35:45 pm
As a teenager, Salima Tete would often accompany her father Sulakshan to play in local hockey matches at nearby villages in Jharkhand’s Simdega district. The father would ferry Salima and one of her friends on a bicycle for more than 20 Kms and would help their respective teams win the tournaments, returning with the prizes – chicken and goats. On Friday, 20-year-old Salima impressed all with her swiftness in midfield as her brilliant runs helped India secure penalty corners in India’s 3-4 loss against Great Britain in the bronze medal match of the Tokyo Olympics. As they watched the game, Sulakshan and his wife Subhani recalled the days when their daughter used to star in village tournaments.
“Playing hockey has been our favourite activity in Jharkhand and Salima would often accompany me to nearby villages for hockey tournaments. Sometimes, we would play more than 10 tournaments in a month. To see my daughter competing in the Olympics and be among the four best teams brings back all those memories. Medal or not, the girls gave their best and that’s what matters for us,” says Sulakshan.
The second-youngest among six siblings, Salima would be initiated into the game when her father included her name in the village team for a tournament in 2010. With some 40-odd villagers forming more than three teams, a young Salima would play as a defender. It was during one such tournament at Latthakhamhan village that the youngster’s defensive skills impressed Manoj Kondegi, president of the Simdega Hockey Association. With more than 500 players competing in the tournament played on grass, Kondegi remembers observing Salima’s game and urging her father to send her to the Jharkhand Government’s Girls’ residential academy at Simdega. “She would defend against much older opponents and sprint with ease. I told her father to send her for the trials but he did not agree as he wanted her to study for two more years. It was only in 2013 that Salima was selected in the trials,” remembers Kondegi.
With Salima’s father owning just seven acres of land and only one seasonal crop growing on the rocky land, the family annual income was in the range of Rs 90,000 to 1,20,000. With money needed for five other children too, Sulakshan remembers facing a tough choice during those times. “We owned seven acres at that time and as we only grew one seasonal crop, the income was not enough. We did not play hockey for money but would always reserve the family’s share of chicken and goats, which the village teams won, for Salima,” he recalls.
When the youngster joined the residential academy at SS Girls Senior Secondary School at Simdega in 2013, she was one of 25 trainees under coach Pratima Barwa. Her natural talent caught the eye immediately. “When she first came to the academy, I was impressed by her speed. Even though she would move the hockey stick clockwise, she displayed good power. Due to competing in tribal tournaments, she never feared tackles. So we made her start as a defender but would also play her as right-half or left-half because of her speed. She would run from the centre line to the 23m line more than 100 times in a session,” says Barwa.
While nine girls from the academy would later make it to the Jharkhand team which won the junior nationals in 2017. Salima benefitted from the presence of players like Sangita Kumari, Beauty Dungdung and Sushma in her batch, all of whom went on to play for Indian junior teams. “The presence of these players in the same batch helped Salima grow as a defender. While she would face difficulty in dodging opponents, it was her speed and ball control which made her special. Initially, the only thing she feared was a train journey. When we first travelled to Delhi in 2014, she wondered how to board the train and whether something came in front of the long train,” laughs Barwa.
Impressing one and all
In 2016, Salima made it to the Indian junior team and would be part of the Australia tour. In 2018, she was also named skipper of the team for the Youth Olympics, where India won the silver. She made her senior debut in 2018. Former High Performance director David John, who has worked with a lot of youngsters in the Indian team who competed in Tokyo, describes Salima as a talent to watch out for in the next few years. “Salima played as a defender in her junior days. We groomed her as a defender for the Youth Olympics knowing that she can run forward too at speed. While she would be the main defender with Deep Grace Ekka in her earlier days, she remained one of the fittest players and was the fastest in 10m and 40m sprints,” John said from Australia.
The last one year has seen Salima developing into an attacking midfielder and head coach Sjoerd Marijne has made her excel at the new position. John too watched all of India’s matches. While Salima and Sharmila Devi impressed John with their speed, he sees the former developing her striking skills in the coming years. “Marijne needed an attacking midfielder, who could add more speed in midfield and can provide the ball more quickly to the strikers. Salima has made the transition well and her good speed and passing sets her apart. It helps the team break the ranks against tougher teams, which we saw in the last few matches at the Olympics. The only thing Salima needs to improve is her striking ability around the circle and if she can do that, very few can match her,” adds John.
Michael Kendo and Sylvanus Dungdung from Simdega played for the Indian men’s team in the 1972 and 1980 Olympics respectively, Salima is the first woman Olympian from the district joining Nikki Pradhan, the first Jharkhand woman player at the Olympics, in Rio. The family is ready to welcome the daughter to their mud home. “Whatever money she got for winning silver at the Youth Olympics, we have saved for her. She will be welcomed by the whole village with dhols and mridangs and her favourite sabzi of radish and its leaves would be prepared,” says Sulakshan.
As for Kondegi, he does not have to search for a chief guest for the tribal tournament this October. “She has done the whole tribal community proud. We would be making Salima the chief guest for the tournament at Latthakhamhan whenever she is free and hope more Salimas would get inspired,” he says.
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