#StillOurHeroes is a series by The Better India to honour the hard work and struggles of those who gave everything to reach the Tokyo Olympics – while falling short of bagging a medal. While all of us have been celebrating India’s wins, the efforts of these athletes count just as much. We are here to show them that the country stands by them in their loss and that for their unparalleled diligence, they are already winners in our eyes.
At only 24 years of age, Neha Goyal is already making history with her impressive performance at Olympics 2021.
A few years back, if someone had told the hockey mid-fielder that she would represent her country in three major international tournaments —Asia Cup (2017), World Cup in London (2018) and the biggest sporting stage in Tokyo — she would have laughed it off.
To think that a hockey player’s on-field performance during the 2021 hockey semi-finals against Argentina would become the centre of attention for the entire nation, eclipsing even the craze around the Indian cricket team, was unfathomable for young Neha, who started playing when she was 10 years old.
Neha, a native of Sonepat, Haryana started playing the sport when she was in Class 5, to escape her dark reality.
Being born in a marginalised family that could barely afford four square meals, the promise of clean clothes and shoes from the local hockey academy seemed like heaven to her.
But, she has come a long way since those grim days. Today, her life has come full circle as she strives to provide better opportunities to underprivileged girls like her by donating hockey kits.
Triumphing off the field
Every single day, Neha, her sisters and her mother lived a horrifying reality.
Savitri Devi, her mother, in a conversation with the Indian Express recalls how she would shut her eyes and put her hands over her ears out of fear of her husband. He was an alcohol addict who would get violent and abusive on certain occasions. That forced Savitri to be the sole breadwinner for her three daughters, the youngest being Neha.
Savitri worked in two shifts — as domestic help and at a cycle factory — to meet the household needs. To earn a meagre income of Rs 2000 per month, Neha too joined her mother and sisters at work. She would be paid Rs 5 to straighten one spoke.
For young Neha, breaking this chain of poverty did not seem plausible with an abusive father, an illiterate mother, a poor education and a destiny that involved odd jobs.
So the same cycle kept turning until she reached class 5.
“My friends used to play hockey in school. When I was in Class 5, one of my friends asked me to join them. I had seen reports about the Indian hockey team in the newspapers. So, I thought — ‘Why not? I am from a very poor family, though things are better now as I have a job. I could take care of my family and play.’ Seeing other kids play hockey always got me interested, and I would keep visiting the ground regularly,” Neha told Sportskeeda.
Getting support at the beginning of a career or even a hobby is a crucial indicator for the child’s growth, something that Savitri was aware of. That is why, even though their house was 7-8 kilometres from the turf, she somehow managed to save Rs 20 for a rickshaw every day, so that her daughter could go and practice. Constantly aware of the financial situation at home, Neha worked twice as hard as the other kids and never took hockey for granted.
But, every hard-working player needs a coach who can identify and fine-tune their strengths and skills while working on eliminating the weaknesses. For Neha, Arjuna Awardee Pritam Siwach was that person.
She was eleven when Pritam spotted her stamina and convinced her parents to let her play hockey. She even promised two meals to Neha’s parents which meant reducing the family’s financial burden.
From providing hockey kits, shoes to words of encouragement, the coach went out of her way to enable her student to make a shining career in sports.
Reaching for the stars
In 2011, Neha joined the Indian Junior National Camp. Four years later, she made it to the Senior Indian Team and played her first match in Glasgow, Scotland.
There was no looking back since then.
From scoring a goal against China in the 2017 Asia Cup, winning a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games to leading India into a draw against England in the 2018 World Cup, she has gathered several accolades to her name. Her indomitable self-belief is reflected in her career graph comprising 83 caps and 12 goals.
Alongside her upward trajectory in sports, Neha also secured a job at the Railways in 2016. This was around the same time when her father had passed away.
Neha’s impeccable speed, quick goals and stamina are her biggest strengths. Keeping the right attitude in face of adversities has helped this Haryana girl overcome one hurdle after another.
When the pressure is mounting on the field, she focuses on giving her best, instead of worrying about the end result. To be on top of her game, she always notices the body language of her co-players. She believes that body language is a good indicator of confidence and strives to improve her own, to boost the team’s morale.
Shouldering responsibilities, whether at home or on the field, comes naturally to Neha. Her past may have some unpleasant memories but that has never been reflected in her performance. It only drives her to do and be better. And that is why she will forever be etched in history as the simple ordinary girl who transformed herself into an extraordinary player at the Olympics.
All the images are sourced from Neha Goyal/Instagram
Edited by Ananya Barua