For Vandana Katariya, hockey isn't a sport, it's a gamechanger in life

Vandana Katariya's success will be, as it has been so far in her career, a validation of her life choices. Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

There are several reasons why Vandana Katariya is important to India's hockey chances at the Asian Games, and also why the tournament is important to her. The first is obvious: Even at 31, she has the goalscoring nous and record that the team is short of, especially in Rani Rampal's absence. She has played more matches and scored more goals than anybody in the squad, and her form becomes crucial if India want to win the gold medal and qualify for the Paris Olympics.

The second is less obvious, but arguably more important in the context of Indian sport, and especially Indian women athletes: Her success will be, as it has been so far in her career, a validation of her life choices, especially breaking barriers to play hockey, and a retort to all those - and there have been many - along the way who have ridiculed her, or worse.

She has delivered twice before in big events. At the 2018 Asian Games, she scored six goals in six matches as India won the silver medal. And at the Tokyo Olympics, she helped her country finish fourth, becoming the first Indian woman hockey player to score a hat-trick at that level.

It's a long way from her family home in Roshanabad, near Haridwar, where she had to fight for the chance to play a sport, fend off criticism that it was all just a waste of time, that it wasn't for her. "Badi hoke roti hi to belni hai (When you grow up, you have to make rotis)", was what she was usually told.

Her journey from there is illustrative of the very rocky road that most women athletes in India have to travel to get anywhere -- the prejudices, the pressures, and the impact all of that has on their mindset. While she's happy talking about hockey, she's most keen to speak -- during a lengthy interaction at the "Trailblazers" event for top Indian athletes in Kolkata recently -- about her life beyond hockey, how it shaped her and what lessons it can offer to those entering the system.

"I used to play kho-kho and kabaddi, and run, take part in athletics competitions. I wasn't focussed on any one sport. My sisters used to play hockey and I saw them and started playing. Finances were a problem. All three of us sisters wore the same pair of shoes and played... I first played only with a tree branch. Then I started playing seriously when I left my village for Meerut [in 2004]."

Vandana credits her father, Nahar Singh, as much as she criticises the attitudes in her village. "My main goal was to get out of the village. I was still not certain about becoming a hockey player. I just wanted to get out of the village. The villagers used to talk to my father [because he encouraged us to play sports]. He ignored them and took us wherever we needed to go. He used to sell milk, that was his profession. We weren't well-off, but he didn't let that affect anything. He even sold off some of the calves to get money for us. Hockey sticks and equipment was expensive but he didn't tell us where he got the money to buy them from."

That move to Lucknow and the Sports Authority of India hostel, in 2005, was her first big break, when she made the state junior team. "I got shoes, a place to stay, proper kit, regular food thrice a day... I could train all day. I didn't enjoy school much but enjoyed training a lot. All of that made me feel that there was a road ahead, that I could get somewhere."

She then graduated to the SAI centre of excellence in Bhopal, but she couldn't escape the prejudices she'd thought she'd left behind. "My fear before I went to Bhopal was that I would have to go back to my village. I would have to face all the same questions and also be taunted for not being able to make it. I would have to get married. I just didn't want to go back. It was a dark phase, when I had a lot of negative thoughts too... I thought about ending my life."

Support came from her hockey mates. Calling her family for help was out of the question, since it would, in her words, add to her parents' stress. There was no way out but to do well, achieve something major.

She has, and how. Katariya is today the most-capped Indian women's hockey player of all time. An Olympic Games hat-tricker and almost-medallist.

But her Tokyo moment of glory was almost overshadowed by the sort of harassment that seems to accompany successful Indian women in any field. After India failed to qualify for the final, her family in Haridwar faced vicious casteist abuse, which spread to social media too. Crackers were burst outside her home as the trolls celebrated India's defeat to Argentina, saying this is what happens to a team dominated by players from the lower castes.

Again, her hockey mates were her support. Her the then captain, Rampal stood squarely behind her, calling it "shameful". "No-one knows what sacrifices athletes put in, this is extremely hurtful. But, at the same time, we got a lot of support from people of our country, for which I am thankful," Katariya said.

As with Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami during the T20 World Cup in 2021. In this case, it's also about a group of young women, some girls even, from more-or-less similar financial backgrounds, journeying together. Same goals, similar problems... "It's a family away from home, we solve each other's problems," Katariya says.

"Our bonding is because we spend so much time together, we are together all the time, we talk to each other; sometimes even during matches, our energies are low, the others back you, push you. You just need to ask for help and it's there. Sometimes you don't even need to ask. Even outside of hockey, we have issues with family, something else, but everyone gets together."

She has transformed her own life, and that of her family -- her father died not long before the Tokyo Olympics, but she has moved her family to Haridwar town. "By god's grace, I am stable now, financially, and in terms of my family."

Along the way, she has changed some of the folk in her village too. "Now, when I go back home to Roshanabad, there is a hockey ground there now, many kids play, and many girls play. The same people who used to criticise us, now praise me for bringing respect to the village. That's life."

"When it comes to me, I had to do well, otherwise I couldn't go back home. My family, fortunately, is fine. But society has to change. And I need to do my bit to change the society. Getting a job was never a goal for me. I am also in the Railways. But my ambition was to win for India, win gold. I can't stop before trying my best to do that."

If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide or self-harm, know that there is help available. Please call one of these helpline numbers (India)

Shamya Dasgupta is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo