Growing up in Haridwar, there were many in her neighbourhood who didn’t want Vandana Katariya to play hockey. But her father Nahar Singh took on those who were against girls pursuing sports seriously.
Three months ago, Vandana, 29, couldn’t attend her father’s funeral. Confined inside the bio-bubble in Bengaluru while training for the Olympics, she couldn’t make the emotional trip home. Instead, she had to deal with the pain of the loss all alone, with the time spent on the field being her only distraction.
On Saturday, the hard yards that Vandana had put in paid off. She became the first Indian woman to score a hat-trick at the Olympics. Her three goals helped India record a 4-3 win over South Africa in their final pool match.
India, who have been profligate in front of goal throughout their campaign, had to rely on Vandana’s speed and opportunism. And if not for her father, Vandana might not have been a hockey player, forget making it to Tokyo.
The forward started playing in Roshanabad, Haridwar’s district headquarters, when she was 11. But her family faced hostility from neighbours, most of whom believed that young girls needed to be trained to do household work. Initially, fearing backlash, Vandana’s family would buckle under societal pressure. But Nahar, unable to see her daughter’s misery when not allowed to play, stood up against the pressure and ensured she continued to play at coach Krishna Kumar’s academy in Roshanabad.
Now, with 245 international appearances and 67 goals, Vandana is one of India’s finest forwards of all time. Her goals have helped India win a junior World Cup bronze, an Asian Champions Trophy gold and an Asian Games silver — all of them historic medals for a team that has been on a continuous upward trajectory.
But none of the goals she’s scored before would be as important as the three she put past South Africa goalkeeper Phumelela Mbande on Saturday, including the winner in the 49th minute from a penalty corner. “It feels nice to score three but all those goals were team efforts. It wouldn’t have been possible if my teammates hadn’t assisted me,” Vandana said.
She might have downplayed her role but Vandana’s goals gave India their second win of the campaign, after they defeated Ireland 1-0 on Friday. It’s their best-ever performance since the 1980 Olympics, where they won two games as well.
But Saturday’s result proved how far they’ve come since the Rio Olympics, where the team lost four of its five matches and drew against Japan, finishing last in the 12-team tournament. To put it in perspective, Vandana scored the same number of goals in one match as India did in their entire campaign at the Rio Games.
India’s tournament in Tokyo began poorly, with heavy defeats to the Netherlands, Germany and Britain – the podium finishers of the previous Games. But the team, coached by Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, recovered from the losses to win the two games in which they had a realistic chance.
Seven players in the team were Covid-19 positive during the second wave but at the Olympics, they have shown high levels of fitness and understanding.
However, there have been traces of individualistic play which have resulted in the team letting their advantage slip. It was visible against Britain, Ireland and also South Africa, where individual mistakes allowed their opponents to hurt them.
Vandana, however, was there to make sure the team crossed the line.
Just three months before the team left for Tokyo, when the squad assembled in Bengaluru for their final stretch of preparations, Vandana was informed of her father’s demise. “The news left her shattered. Because of the travel restrictions and the increasing number of (Covid) cases, she didn’t even go for his funeral. She wouldn’t have been here if her father had not stood by her. So it was a big sacrifice,” a teammate had recently said.