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For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a slum. Now I play for India. | By Devindar Walmiki

For the first 14 years of my life, I lived in a slum. Now I play for India. | By Devindar Walmiki
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Devindar Walmiki

Published: 22 Feb 2018 9:39 AM GMT
They say life is a series of lucky breaks. I would not know how true that is. But I do know this. Life has a habit of kicking you to the curb an exceptionally high number of times in a lifetime. Times when things feel so bleak that you wonder if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Here's the secret. There always is. For the first fourteen years of my life, I had no concept of living in a comfortable home. My family has been in Bombay for the past five decades now. For four of those, they have lived in a slum house. That was the house I grew up in, the house that was the only home I knew all my childhood. A house without electricity, it's walls lined with plastic, in the middle of Bombay's slums. Keeping in mind the description I just gave, hockey is probably the last thing you would associate with us. It's actually surprising how Hockey happened. There we were, my brother Yuvraj and I; two kids united against the rest of the outside world. And there were numerous occasions when we would need to team up. Despite our poor living conditions, my parents did not compromise on our education and sent us to an English medium school. One of my brother's friends in school was a top Hockey player in the school circuit. Surprisingly, he was our introduction to the game.
Yuvraj and Devindar Walmiki One day, after a particularly brilliant performance by this boy, local newspapers carried his picture with his name. All of them congratulated him and, at that age, neither my brother nor I could understand why. So we did what anyone would do. We asked him. We asked him what we needed to do to get our names in the papers too. As kids, that was the huge deal. The answer we got was plain and simple. 'Play Hockey,' he said. That's how it began. First, my brother picked it up and then I did. I might do the poetic thing here and sign off with the quintessential 'the rest is history' phrase, but it's not history, is it? A sportsperson never stops being a sportsperson. It does not matter whether you have been dropped from a team or whether you are injured. You owe a debt to your sport and, often, it takes a lifetime to pay it off. I have been lucky to have had an illustrious career. I picked up my first hockey stick when I was 7. Back then, it was a simple case of the younger sibling following the elder one. Yuvraj is three years senior to me, and if I say that he has been my mentor all my life, it would still be less to describe his influence on me. But that can come later. Read:
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So, there I was. A 7-year old who had followed his brother into training with much older and senior players. While it helped me perfect my game, it was also a disadvantage that I wasn't allowed to play too often due to fear of injury. My first break came in Bombay's fourth division League playing for the Bombay Republican Club. It was straight out of the movies. Poetic again, since we are in the land of Bollywood. A player got injured. I was asked to fill in for him. In a fairy tale cliche, I scored three goals in that game. This happened when I was 12. In 2009, I got my first break for the National team. It was the U18 side which was supposed to go for the Junior Asia Cup hosted by Myanmar that year. People, through the ages, have often described the first time they stood in their country's jersey, the first time you hear the national anthem being sung before your game begins. I can tell you one thing. No matter how many times you hear other people describing it, there is absolutely nothing that will prepare you for it when it happens to you. In plain and simple words, it is overwhelming. I look back at that moment now and wonder at how inconsequential I was compared to the enormity of the moment. Hockey gave me that. Hockey gave me respite. It gave me passion. Like I said, being a sportsperson is having a relationship with your sport till the day you die. You owe a debt.
After playing for India for quite some time, I played in the German Bundesliga. For a long time, I revelled in my success. Who wouldn't? A real-life rags to riches story was at hand, and I was living it. But something was missing. Perhaps it was time to start giving back what Hockey had given me. In situations like this, the thing to remember is that there are always going to be people to helpout. People less fortunate than you are, in more dire situations. So why not take it up? Maharashtra has been one of the erstwhile hubs of Indian Hockey.The state has produced players like Viren Rasquinha and Dhanraj Pillay. But look at the current roster, how many players from the region are in the National team? A dearth of talent is not the reason. Even if you move outside Bombay to cities like Kolhapur, Nagpur or Pune, young kids play freestyle hockey as if it's their life. They have no proper infrastructure, nobody to trains them, yet they play. Fabian Rozwadowski, my coach during my stint in Germany, had always wanted to visit India. I wanted to do something for Hockey. In the end, there was only one thing to do. It's been four months since the Hockey camp was held in this city so dear to us. With the best possible coaching that you can squeeze in in a limited period, Fabian, Yuvraj and I conducted it. We got help and support from Dhanraj Pillay and countless other people. The response we got was overwhelming. The talent we found? Astonishing! An athlete can understand another athlete in the way no one else can. In many ways, an athlete is the best coach you'll ever find. Why? Because he has been through the system himself. He has dealt with the numerous ups and downs that come out of a life in sport. He understands the demotivation that comes with injury. He knows the hard work needed to push yourself to test your limits. The reason why Maharashtra hockey has not been able to maintain its stronghold is the lack of a proper coach. Administrators do not make good coaches. And really, it is insulting to the talent present in the State if it is not adequately harvested. India's current coach is doing quite well when it comes to giving a chance to young players so that they get adequate exposure. Well, Maharashtra has that talent. There's just a gap between the State team and the National Team- one which can only be filled with a good coach. Also read:
I was the only girl competing and playing with a pack of boys ' Nadiya Nighat
Change doesn't happen overnight. But it takes just one spark to cause a fire. The important thing to remember is that every phase, no matter how bleak it may seem, it too shall pass. In 2011, I captained the Junior team to the Sultan of Johor Cup. In 2013, I was dropped from the Junior World Cup squad. For a long time, I wondered why. The kid that I was, this felt like the end of the road for my career. Honestly, I still have not been able to figure the reason behind this move. For a month after that, I had given up training and did not touch a hockey stick.
What is necessary is to think big. I eventually made it to the senior squad and even played in the Olympics. My brother, who had been unlucky enough to miss out on a berth due to an injury, made sure he was cheering me on the entire time. It was one of the best gifts one could give to the person who had been a mentor, a brother and a friend throughout my lifetime. It has been only ten years since my parents were introduced to a bed. Before that, it was an alien piece of furniture as they had spent the better part of their lives sleeping on the floor. My brother and I were able to give them a better life because of Hockey, and for that I am grateful. Ultimately, everything you achieve in life is because of the support and sacrifices of the people around you. In your moment of glory, you must never forget that. Before being a good athlete, be a good person. Cherish the people who matter the most, the people who stick. Never climb so high and get so high an opinion of yourself that you lose people along the way and have no one to share your success with. The land of Bollywood has given us yet another brilliant piece of advice. No matter how low you are, just know that "picture Abhi baki hai, mere dost!"
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