‘Toxic’ childhood to cycle factory to Indian hockey team for Tokyo Olympics

From working alongside her mother and sisters at the cycle factory straightening spokes for about Rs 2,000 a month to Team India, it has been an incredible journey for the promising midfielder.

AROUND 13 years ago, Savitri Devi enrolled the youngest of her three daughters at a hockey academy in Haryana’s Sonepat so that she could escape the “toxic” atmosphere at home.

“My husband would get drunk, and become abusive and violent. Whenever he came home, my daughter used to shut her eyes, close both her ears with her fingers and hide behind me. That was no way to live. The hockey ground felt safer,” says Devi, who worked as a domestic help and at a cycle factory to feed her family.

Today, that daughter is set to make her maiden appearance for India on the world’s biggest sporting stage — the Olympic Games. Neha Goyal, 24, is part of the 16-member Indian women’s hockey team that was announced Thursday for the Tokyo Games next month.

From working alongside her mother and sisters at the cycle factory straightening spokes for about Rs 2,000 a month to Team India, it has been an incredible journey for the promising midfielder.

“Her coach says this is a big deal,” says Devi, now 55. “And I trust her.”

She is talking about Pritam Siwach, an Arjuna Awardee and a member of India’s 2002 CWG gold medal-winning women’s team. Siwach, 46, runs a hockey academy in Sonepat — a modest facility, a mid-sized ground with an uneven playing surface.

“Neha was 11 when I spotted her loitering near the ground every day. She didn’t speak a lot. So one day, I gave her a skipping rope. She showed a lot of stamina so I thought, ‘why not try to teach her hockey?’” she recalls.

Siwach promised Neha “two proper meals” if she would play. “I wanted to convince her parents so I went to her home, which wasn’t too far from the academy,” Siwach says.

But, she adds, Neha was “embarrassed” to invite her. “It was basically just one very small, dimly lit room. If you took 10 small steps, you’d hit a wall,” Siwach says. There was a small TV on a wooden plank on one corner, a makeshift kitchen on the other side, and a cot.

The family of five lived next to an open drain. In an earlier interview, Neha had recalled her struggles: “All I remember is my father coming home drunk and things getting out of control. He didn’t have a job.”

And yet, her teammates confide, she has always been “among the happy-go-lucky players in the team, always smiling no matter what the situation”.

But her mother “worked from morning till evenings to make sure our basic needs were taken care of”. Soon, the women in the family started working together at the cycle factory. “For one spoke, we were paid Rs 5,” says Devi.

Neha, whose father passed away a few years ago, continued helping her mother even after she started playing hockey. “She never shied away from extra work. But she used to feel a little scared when her father came to the hockey ground. She used to freeze. Ultimately, I had to tell him to stay away from my academy,” says Siwach.

The coach took Neha under her wings, providing her equipment, food and “everything else she needed”. “Once, we were playing a state-level match in Gurgaon. In the first half, she wasn’t running much. I asked her the reason and she lifted her left foot to reveal a big hole in her shoe,” Siwach says.

During the half-time break, Siwach’s husband Kuldeep, also a player-turned coach, ran to a nearby store and got Neha, now employed with the Railways, a new pair of shoes. “In the second half, she almost single-handedly ran through the opposition defence with her explosive speed and also scored a couple of goals,” Siwach says.

It is this attribute — speed along with the knack of scoring goals — that saw Neha rise through the ranks and make her international debut at 18. She’s been in-and-out of the team but under Sjoerd Marijne, the Dutch coach of the women’s team, Neha has blossomed into a sharp attacker with the ability to slip past the defence.

At 4-feet-9, Neha most often isn’t the tallest player on the field. But in a sport that is increasingly getting physical, height is her weapon, Siwach says. “Her runs are not spotted easily so she can get into dangerous goal-scoring positions,” she says.

With her career earnings, Neha now provides financial support to the academy, even donating her playing kit, shoes and hockey sticks. Recently, she and her mother moved into a high-rise apartment complex in Sonepat along the Delhi-Chandigarh highway — an address she shares with several sports stars, including the Phogat sisters and Siwach herself.

That’s not all. A couple of rooms in Neha’s home are reserved for underprivileged players who train at Siwach’s academy and can’t afford a place to stay — like junior India women’s player Antim. “Her journey inspires me a lot. She did not have anything when she began,” Antim says. “And now, didi is taking care of us all.”

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