Birendra Lakra: ‘It hurt to miss the Olympics’

If not for an anterior cruciate ligament injury in February, Birendra Lakra would have played in his second Olympic Games this year. The timing of the injury was cruel but Lakra does not wish to dwell on the pain of the past.

“Of course it hurt a little to miss the Olympics. I even got a chance in Valencia but because I was not fully fit, I could not go to Rio.But you have to forget all that and look ahead.”

If not for an anterior cruciate ligament injury in February, Birendra Lakra would have played in his second Olympic Games this year. The timing of the injury was cruel but Lakra does not wish to dwell on the pain of the past. “Of course it hurt a little to miss the Olympics,” he says. “It was a fact that I was injured. Yet, I tried to come back. I even got a chance in Valencia but because I was not fully fit, I could not go to Rio. It hurt a bit. But you have to forget all that and look ahead.”

It is to his – and the Indian team’s – immense relief that Lakra is back to full fitness. Later this month, the 26-year-old defender will take part in the Asian Champions Trophy in Malaysia, a proper return to action after a long time out. “I’m excited to be back,” he says. “I want to contribute the same way I used to before. If you keep thinking about the injury, you’ll never be able to play.”

If there is delight at Lakra’s return among his colleagues, there is also admiration at the manner he and Shrikant Iyengar, the team physiotherapist, went about his rehabilitation process. “It’s a credit to Biru and Shrikant’s dedication and hard work that he recovered so soon,” says Roger van Gent, the team’s strategic coach. “Normally, it takes six to nine months for a player to recover from an ACL injury but he was back on the pitch inside four months. He spent six to eight hours on his rehab every single day, even on Sundays. And it helped that he was in the camp, in this team environment, all along.”

Hockey India sanctioned an allograft, which allowed a tendon (from a cadaver) to be imported from the U. S. and grafted in. “Normally, they cut a tendon from our own hamstring and use it,” says P. R. Sreejesh. “That would have added another month to the process, because then two places would have had to heal.”

Lakra underwent surgery in Mumbai in March. Then began a race against time, to have him ready for the Olympics. By June, Lakra was back on the pitch. The Six Nations tournament in Valencia was the defender’s big test, but it was clear there that he was not going to be fully ready in time for the Games. “Being fit is one thing; being match fit is another,” says van Gent. “We were just a month away from the Olympics. And for the sake of his own career, we couldn’t afford to let him get injured again.”

Lakra is merely grateful to be back doing what he loves. “I was fortunate that Shrikant was the Ranchi Rays physio when I was injured during the HIL,” he says. “He was able to handle the rehab process from the beginning. Otherwise, I would have lost some more time.”

His captain is pleased. “I missed him in Rio,” Sreejesh says. “He’s one of our trusted warriors.”