The speakers at the Oi Hockey Stadium blared It’s A Beautiful Day by Irish rock band U2. And it was beautiful indeed for Indian hockey. It was a day that generations have waited for, finally a hockey medal – after 41 years – from the Olympics was coming home.
Skipper Manpreet Singh fell to the ground and yelled in joy, while goalkeeper P. R. Sreejesh took off in the other direction. He would return to pay homage to the goalpost, which he considers his “temple”.
The young Vivek Sagar Prasad and Dilpreet Singh, now Olympic medallists, were capturing every moment on their phones.
Vivek video-called his mother: “Win! Win!” he screamed in joy while lifting the national flag he’s had in the other hand. He asked for his grandparents and Dilpreet stood moist-eyed a few yards away. Dilpreet, also 21, was unable to hold his tears as he spoke to his family. These youngsters have been away from home for over a year.
Rupinder Pal Singh, one of the veterans in the team at 30, was remarkably composed. He smiled but was still his stoic self.
READ | Dr. Vece Paes: ‘Indian team has shown guts and skills to fight back and chase its dreams’
“It means the world to me. The goal over the last 10-11 years has been to win a medal at a big tournament for me. Our target was to play the final and win gold, but I am glad that we made the podium. It’s no easy task, especially considering we were losing and came back to win it. Throughout this tournament, we have bounced back whenever we lost (to Australia in the group stage and Belgium in the semifinal). I am very proud of the team and youngsters as they gave it their best throughout,” he said.
“Many people had doubted this team. I just want to tell them that your views and criticism do not matter to us. Next time, just have some patience and we will get the result.”
Sreejesh was the opposite of Rupinder’s calm demeanour. He walked in with a smile that shined brighter than the sun and broke into a little jig. He posed for a few pictures and then said, “Ask me serious questions, let’s go!”
The 33-year-old said he’s been waiting for this very moment since he started playing hockey in 2000. “I’ve waited 21 years for this medal. This will inspire all the youngsters back home and make them work harder,” he clamed.
RELATED | Tokyo Olympics Men's Hockey: Belgium wins gold after shootout victory over Australia
Describing his “special” relationship with the goalpost, he added: “I often talk to my goalpost. When the ball hits the post I say, ‘Good job man, thanks for that’ and when I concede I tell the goalpost, ‘Hey, don’t do that to me!’ My goalpost is my companion and I treat it like my temple. That’s why I prostrated before it after the match.”
Skipper Manpreet didn’t know how to react. “ Main toh wahin pe let gaya (I was lying down) . I had no words, there was nothing coming out of my mouth! The way the team played today after trailing 1-3 was amazing. Poora jaan de rahe the (We were giving our all) ,” he said.
He opened up about the many sacrifices the team made to get to this stage and how mentally tough they needed to be.
“We’ve sacrificed so much just to be here, in the bronze medal playoff, that we had made up our mind that we wanted to be on the podium. Just look at the last year – we’ve been in SAI Bengaluru and the guys have stayed away from their families for major parts of their year. Take Sreejesh for example, he has been away from his wife and kids for so long."
Manpreet dedicated the medal to all the frontline workers who fought valiantly during the coronavirus pandemic.
ALSO READ | On the day of India’s Olympic bronze, remembering a friend of hockey
“We had decided that if we won a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, then we would dedicate it to our frontline workers and essential service workers. We also want to dedicate it to members of the police forces, and our army men. They’ve saved so many lives. All of them have been relentlessly and selflessly working during the pandemic,” he added.
While everyone else had caught up with their families, Manpreet did not have a chance. After a few hundred selfies and videos, he was ushered to the press conference and then came back to speak to a few journalists in the mixed zone.
“ Abhi jaane toh do aap log (let me go now)," he said with a hearty laugh before making his way to the dressing room.
Meanwhile, the stadium speakers were still in full flow. The DJ deserved a pat on the back, he was playing Bob Marley's Is This Love . For Indians back home, this was euphoria.
The boys will be back at the Oi Hockey Stadium tomorrow to cheer the women’s team in their bronze medal match against Great Britain.