How Sreejesh got on the line for India

Moments after the final whistle, PR Sreejesh took a moment of calm to himself. Perched in the upper left corner of the crossbar, the Indian keeper sucked his fingers in disbelief and examined the blue turf below. His teammates were hugging and crying and a few exhausted Germans were lying on the ground in grief. The 35-year-old had dreamed of that moment – an Olympic medal – in his countless journeys past stinky toilets on crowded trains, clutching his oversized kit bag, curling up in bus stations overnight and taking hits on his body in his inexpensive cane pads as a junior.

It took him three Olympics to get here. He finished it not only with a medal, but arguably as a key player for the Indian team in the tournament.

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“You can tell how much Sreejesh put in the work from the hair on his head,” joked former national coach Michael Nobbs. “He’s just one of those guys who lives and breathes the game and throws his body over the line.” At the Tokyo Olympics, he saved 23 of 33 field goals and 17 of 27 PCs faced by India.

By the nature of their profile, goalies are often the most flamboyant and eccentric characters on any pitch. Their job description requires them to train their muscle memory and reflexes to go against natural human instinct and throw themselves into the path of an incoming projectile, rather than to safety. It takes unwavering fearlessness and crazy pikes.

Nobbs once asked another Australian strength and fitness trainer to taste Indian spices at Bengaluru National Camp.

“The guy had never been out of Australia so I was excited he tried the red and green chili peppers. I called Sreejesh and asked him ‘buddy, which do you think he could try ? ‘ Sreejesh came over, took a handful of red chillies and bit them like carrots. My friend from Australia was very impressed and bit one himself and almost passed out. This is Sreejesh. Crazy, brilliant and full of fun. “

Hockey isn’t even among Kerala’s five most popular sports, but Sreejesh chose it because it was the only one at GV Raja Sports School in Trivandrum where everyone was a beginner. The other sports – basketball and volleyball – already had a handful of good players. The intention was clear – he wanted to stand out, not catch up. He picked the goalie because it seemed like the least athletic of roles on a hockey field and he hated running anyway. National junior coach Harendra Singh then spotted Sreejesh at an Under-16 camp in Trivandrum. The 15-year-old arrived for his first domestic trials at JN Stadium in July 2003 by the Trivandrum-Delhi Express train with a lungi check in his satchel.

“The signs were good,” says Harendra. “Usually goalkeepers tend to use their right leg more than their left, but Sreejesh used both of his legs as a junior and the other thing was different from a lot of others who kept their hands to the side, he was always folded and his hands were positioned like a tennis player receiving a serve.

“Since he only spoke Malayalam, he was a little hesitant to communicate. The first thing I did was match him up with the boys from the north as roommates and ask him not to be afraid to scream, to swear, whatever was necessary to control the game. “

When Sreejesh broke into the senior squad, she was full of goalie options – Adrian D’souza, Baljit Singh, Devesh Chauhan and Bharat Chhetri. This meant he would have to wait his turn, if necessary. Deprived of experience under the helm, a reserve keeper can often disappear. Not Sreejesh.

“As a goalkeeper you can’t just accept whatever is thrown at you on the pitch, you learn to resist and fight back. Sreejesh has done the same with his spell on the team,” Harendra adds.

He worked on his communication skills, fought parish divisions and slowly became the loudest and most vocal Indian member on the pitch.

“It used to slide quickly on the ground when trying to stop. He soon realized that this put him at a disadvantage for a second shot on goal. Today, he’s pretty much the ideal goalie in modern hockey. His agility, anticipation, interception and ability to read opponents’ minds is exceptional. “

And his leadership, while official, is unchallenged. “It doesn’t matter who the captain is, on the hockey field it’s the goalie who leads the team because we have the best view on the pitch,” he once told ESPN. “It is important that I stay positive in my messages during games because the rest of the team follows the tone and tension of my voice. Nothing in my voice should let them down. They should know that no matter what happens. , I’m here and the ball won’t pass me. “

Sreejesh’s interests are different from those of most other team members. Reading is his most beloved pastime, and he devoured piles of books while the pandemic-affected team was at the national camp. He is among the last of his generation to continue to remain a pillar of the team.

“Sreejesh, Sardar (Singh), (SV) Sunil and I would make coffee pots and sit on the balcony of our hostel, chatting for hours. Sreejesh would often say, ‘Brother, we have to do something in our time. , we have to make a difference, “recalls former Indian defender VR Raghunath. He and Sardar have retired, while Sunil has been excluded from the Tokyo squad.” This medal is a reward for the way Sreejesh has worn the side on his shoulders over the years. It’s a medal for a generation that hoped but never won. “

Indian hockey has gone through some of its lowest phases in the past fifteen years – from the team ranked 13th in 2008 and failing to qualify for the Beijing Games to third place in the world today. with an Olympic bronze medal. Sreejesh battled an ACL tear in 2017 that kept him out of competitive play for almost a year, and he returned to a team where he was no longer the captain.

What has remained unchanged is his ability to mobilize the team. “You don’t get a good goalie at 21 in the sport. You need those years under the bar to know how to command defenders so you don’t get shot,” Nobbs said. “Sreejesh is perfectly seasoned for the role.” The last six seconds of play Thursday showed why.

India conceded a penalty corner and the ball, struck by Lukas Windfeder, sped towards Sreejesh, high waisted to his right. India then led 5-4, and in the nervous, pulsating nanoseconds that followed, he launched his body like a shield, blocking a rebound. It was then that he, the rest of the team and a billion returning people collectively exhaled, certain that history was written.

Sreejesh let out a throaty cry. The rest should be blurry. It has been a wait of a lifetime.

“We’re the guys wearing helmets and waiting for the shots,” he once told ESPN. “Most people might not even know what we look like because they barely see our faces … but we are almost always remembered for our misfires rather than our saves.” On Thursday, in the biggest game of his life, with the biggest save of his life, he changed that descriptor forever.

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